How does the internet work, and why do we need wi-fi to use it?
The internet is just a connection to everyone else’s computer. Amazon.com? That’s a giant computer owned by Amazon. Youtube.com? Another giant computer owned by Youtube. Wikipedia? Same thing. Gmail? Also a computer.
These computers are usually in giant warehouses in the middle of nowhere. So you need some way to connect to them. There are giant cables underground and under the ocean that connect all these different computers. Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Verizon FiOS, or Time Warner, give you access to these giant cables. The coax internet/tv cable coming into your house is a smaller cable, but it’s connected to the giant cables. Wifi is just a wireless connection to the same system, but it only has limited range.
Imagine the internet is like a huge library full of books. But instead of physical books, it’s full of digital information like videos, pictures, and websites. Just like in a library, you need a way to get to the information you want to access.
You don’t need wi-fi to access the internet, but you do on smart phones and in public places.
When you turn on your device’s wi-fi, it starts looking for a nearby signal. Once it finds one, it sends a message to the internet (like saying “hello” to a librarian) and the internet sends information back (like giving you a book to read). The wi-fi is the librarian giving you the things you’re asking for in the library. The library can exist without the librarian but then it’s just a a building with information inside it. Wi-fi is the way that data coems off the shelf and into your hands.
You don’t need WiFi to use it. For about the first two decades of the internet, WiFi wasn’t a thing. You used physical wires (often telephone wires in the early days).
The internet is an agreed system of rules for computer networks to talk to each other. So a computer on one network (say, your home WiFi or your work network or your ISP) can find and talk to any other computer on any other network that’s also connected to the internet.
It’s not really “one thing” any more than “how do roads work”…there’s roads all over the world, built and maintained by different people, connected in different ways, but as long as we all agree on some basic rules then cars can use all of them and you can get between any two points connected by road (with the right map and cars).
The internet works by passing messages between devices. The device at each end of this connection could be a traditional laptop or desktop computer, or a smartphone, or a printer, or many many other possible devices.
In the middle are special devices that only pass messages back and forth. These are called routers and switches. (Not to be confused with Nintendo Switches.)
When you type, for example, “reddit.com” into your browser, your device contacts its “gateway” device (if you’re at home, usually a “router”, whether a separate device or built into your modem) and says “I want to talk to ‘reddit.com’.” *
Wi-Fi is one of the ways that your device can make this connection and send and receive traffic; unless you have Wi-Fi or another option available, you can’t make this connection and therefore can’t internet.
*: If you want to actually see the path of devices, you can open up the Windows command line and type `tracert reddit.com`. (On Linux (and probably Mac, too), try either `tracepath reddit.com` or `traceroute reddit.com`.)
Wifi is a tool for exchanging information between your mobile device and the router in your building. It uses radio waves basically.
The internet is a tool for exchanging information between your router and other computers that are all connected together. Many of these computers are massive setups owned by companies, and may be called servers. The internet uses copper wires and fibre optic cables to exchange signals, but the key feature is the system of data formats that allow everything to move freely around the network and reach the right destination.
The content that is on all the computers and servers is called the World Wide Web.