Wired or Wireless?



Deciding whether to connect a device to a home or office network via wireless or wired connections is one of the most critical decisions that must be made when setting up a network or adding a new device to it. For many devices, only one type of connection may be possible; however, if a device supports both, it is important to understand the benefits of connecting it via Wi-Fi or Ethernet and to choose appropriately given the device's intended use. Here are some important points to keep in mind when deciding on Wi-Fi vs. Ethernet connections for a device.

Understanding Wi-Fi and Ethernet bandwidth differences

For most modern devices, Wi-Fi and Ethernet have comparable bandwidth capabilities. Most Ethernet devices support at BISD support the gigabit-Ethernet standard. Virtually all modern wireless devices support at least the 802.11g Wi-Fi standard, allowing a theoretical maximum bandwidth of 54 Mbps. Devices implementing the newer Wireless N standard can support speeds of up to 300 Mbps or more, and recent 802.11ac devices can provide wireless speeds in the gigabit-per-second range.

Understanding latency differences between Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections

Latency refers to the time it takes for a signal from one networked device to reach another. It is also frequently called the "ping" in casual conversation. Latency is usually measured in milliseconds, and a consistently low latency is very important for good performance in time-sensitive network applications, such as video streaming or online gaming. As a rule, Ethernet connections tend to have a lower and more consistent latency than Wi-Fi connections. This is largely due to issues with interference with the Wi-Fi signal and not due to actual differences in transmission time. Later revisions of Wi-Fi, such as Wireless N, tend to perform better with regard to latency but may still have issues with consistency.

Understanding environmental interference

A primary advantage of Ethernet connections is that they are virtually immune to environmental effects. In contrast, Wi-Fi connections can be sensitive to radio interference from a number of sources. Other nearby Wi-Fi networks are one of the primary offenders; although, newer Wi-Fi devices often support multiple frequencies for Wi-Fi transmission that can sometimes alleviate this problem by switching to a less crowded portion of the spectrum. Additionally, Wi-Fi signals may be distorted by architectural features of a building, such as cinder block walls, metal support beams or wiring. Interference can cause issues with both bandwidth and latency for Wi-Fi connections.

Deciding between Wi-Fi and Ethernet

Convenience and latency tend to be the primary deciding factors when deciding between wired and wireless connections. Bandwidth is much less of a concern for most applications unless you regularly transfer very large files between computers on the same network. Both Wi-Fi and Ethernet overall bandwidths far exceed the bandwidth available to all but the fastest home and business Internet connections. 

Devices intended for general Internet use, such as web browsing, do not generally see large performance differences between Wi-Fi vs. Ethernet connections. If it is not possible or practical to run an Ethernet cable to such a device, then a wireless connection is a good choice. However, if a device is intended for applications that require good latency characteristics, it is advisable to use an Ethernet connection. For example, using a Wi-Fi-connected gaming console in an interference-laden environment can be a recipe for frustration. This is especially true if there are potential interference sources, such as a large number of other nearby Wi-Fi networks on the same frequency.

Modern Wi-Fi and Ethernet standards are quite comparable in terms of their bandwidth and general performance. Wi-Fi connections are more convenient for many devices, but Ethernet connections continue to be best for latency-sensitive uses and in situations where Wi-Fi connections experience significant interference.


Note:  At this time for reasons described above, BISD does not support testing over wireless for any application.  A wired connection will be required for stability and speed.