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Mobile Data Versus Wi-Fi: Choosing One or the Other

You’ve just seen one way that cellular networking and Wi-Fi networking can work together—by tethering your smartphone and computer together, via Wi-Fi, to share the cellular data signal. In most other aspects, these two wireless technologies work side-by-side, offering similar Internet-based functionality, but in different ways.

Here’s the deal. Your smartphone can connect to the Internet either via Wi-Fi or via your cellular service’s network. Most phones are configured to use the nearest Wi-Fi signal by default, as Wi-Fi is both faster than 3G data connections and doesn’t rack up charges against your phone’s data plan. So, if you’re near a Wi-Fi network, your phone tries to connect to that network; if there’s not Wi-Fi nearby, then your phone switches to the standard cellular data network.

This default-to-Wi-Fi behavior makes a lot of sense, especially if you consume a lot of media online. Checking your email won’t necessarily eat up your available data plan, but viewing a lot of photos on web pages or consuming streaming music or video will. If you use your phone to watch a lot of streaming movies or TV shows, chances are you’ll blow through your data plan much sooner than you’d like, and be liable for costly overage charges.

Naturally, you can, at any time, switch off your phone’s Wi-Fi, which then forces your phone to connect to the cellular network to access the Internet. In most instances, however, you probably want to use Wi-Fi when it’s available and fall back on your 3G network only when you have to.

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