How the internet works: tech jargon demystified

Have you looked at internet options and become confused by some of the techy jargon floating around? We’re talking things like bandwidth, home wireless broadband, latency, fixed internet… and the list goes on.

In this article, we’ll demystify some of the more common terms you’re likely to come across in your search for the best internet for you.

But before we dig in, we’ll have a look at what the internet is, and tackle a question that often pops up: Are broadband and internet the same thing?

What is the internet?

The internet is a vast network of servers and computers across the entire world that all talk to each other. “Talk to each other” in this case means sending back and forth information, or data, that is stored on these servers and computers.

It’s this data that makes up everything you can see, do or engage with online like: articles and websites (like this one), email, search engines (think Google), social media, video chat, streaming platforms, and lots more!

Data travels along this network of servers and computers using a mix of wired and wireless technologies, which you can use to connect your computer (or other devices) to the internet and enjoy all the wonders of the online world.

Did you know...

There’s over a million kilometres of fibre optic cable running along the ocean floor to connect the entire world to the internet. These cables form an important part of what’s called ‘the internet backbone’.

Fun fact: sharks have been known to gnaw on these cables, and while theories exist, nobody knows exactly why they do it. Maybe they’re just trying to catch a stream of Finding Nemo?

Are broadband and internet the same thing?

Broadband is a high-speed internet connection that is always on, contrary to dial-up internet back in the 90s. It also has higher bandwidth than the old dial-up system, so more data can travel the network at the same time.

Most internet connections these days are broadband, so the term is becoming less and less important for the average consumer.

So broadband isn’t the same as the internet, it’s just a type of internet connection. Because it’s so widespread, however, many people are treating the terms as synonymous. And in most cases, that’s absolutely fine.

The jargon of connecting to the internet

There’s a range of different tech that can connect you to the internet, but first and foremost, you connect to the internet via an internet service provider, or ISP, like Telstra.

What is an ISP?

To access the internet, you need an account with an internet service provider.

An ISP, or internet service provider, provides internet access to customers, often in the form of internet plans for a monthly fee.

ISPs also maintain – and often own – a good chunk of the infrastructure needed to get you online. This can be cabling, mobile network towers, data servers, etc. They can also send out technicians to hook you up to that infrastructure if you aren’t already.

In essence, an ISP opens the door to the internet and takes care of much of what happens behind the scenes, so customers don’t have to worry about it.

Wired and wireless, Wi-Fi, ethernet and mobile internet: how do you connect?

Wired internet is an internet connection that reaches your home or business via cables. This could be DSL, fibre optic, copper cables or coaxial cables.

The most common wired internet option in Australia is nbn, which uses a combination of copper, coaxial and fibre optic cables to deliver high-speed internet to your premises.

Wireless internet is an internet connection that reaches your home or business via radio waves. This is how you connect to a mobile network (like 5G).

To wirelessly access the mobile network, phones come with an in-built antenna that can pick up the signal sent from a mobile network tower.

You can, in some cases, also have 5G for your home or for your business. You’ll need a 5G modem that can pick up the 5G signal. This is sometimes called ‘home wireless broadband’.

Wi-Fi is another type of wireless internet connection, but it only works locally, like in your home or business. The Wi-Fi signal is sent out from a modem and the modem gets its internet connection either from a cable (for nbn) or from the same mobile network you use on your phone (for 5G Home Internet).

A Wi-Fi signal has limited range, that’s why you can only use it locally. Go too far and you lose the signal. Next-gen modems like the Telstra Smart Modem 3 have stronger Wi-Fi signals, so they can reach more corners of your house.

Ethernet cables are a type of wired internet connection that are used to connect a device within a local area to a modem. It’s a wired alternative to Wi-Fi.

The device will need to have an ethernet port to plug into, which most computers, laptops and TVs have, but phones and tablets don’t. Ethernet cables are also called network cables.

Mobile internet (often called mobile broadband) is internet you can take with you. It means you’re connected to the mobile network with a portable device, like your mobile phone or a portable modem. These devices have an in-built antenna that can pick up radio wave signals sent out from mobile network towers. Mobile internet is the opposite of ‘fixed’ internet options, like nbn or 5G Home Internet, which always have to stay in the home.

Did you know...

Wired internet connections for the home or a business are usually considered more stable and reliable than their wireless counterparts because there’s less chance of interference, but with current technological advancements, the average consumer probably won’t notice too much difference.

Want to know which internet is right for your home? Check out our nbn and 5G Home Internet explainer article.

The jargon of internet speeds

At the start of this article, we mentioned that the internet is a network of servers and computers that all talk to each other, meaning they send data back and forth. The speed at which that data travels matters. But also the amount of data that can travel at the same time. Both are often described as ‘internet speed’, but let’s have a closer look at what each means.

The speed of data

Data speed typically refers to how quickly data can travel between your computer and the server (or servers) that stores the data.

With fibre optic cables, data can (theoretically) travel at the speed of light. How? Because fibre optic cables transfer data via pulses of light. Copper and coaxial cables, however, transfer data via electrical currents, which isn’t quite as fast (but still pretty fast).

For wireless internet, data travels over radio waves, which also travel at the speed of light.

It’s important to know that data travelling ‘at the speed of light’ is theoretical and there can be many limiting factors like: the distance data has to travel, the type of infrastructure being used, general wear and tear of infrastructure, and any other kind of interference.

The speed at which data travels is often referred to as latency and it’s measured in milliseconds (ms). The lower the latency, the faster data gets where it needs to be. Latency can also be described as the delay between when you request data (for example when you click to open a website), and that data reaching you.

Did you know...

Low latency is especially important for competitive gaming, like online shooters, Battle Royals or MOBAs, because you want the shortest amount of delay possible between when you click your mouse button or press a key and the in-game ability triggering.

The quantity of data

Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transmitted at the same time. It’s measured in Mbps (megabits per second).

So if it’s about quantity, why is it still referred to as ‘speed’?

Because it affects your download and upload speeds. If you want to download a 10 gigabyte (GB) file, then the higher your bandwidth, the more megabits will be downloaded per second, so the faster the download will be completed.

Did you know...

Streaming services like Disney+ recommend a download speed of 25Mbps to stream 4K movies and TV shows, so if you have multiple people in your household streaming in Ultra HD, downloading, and gaming, you’ll want the bandwidth to cover it!

So which of these is ‘internet speed’: the speed data travels or the quantity of data that travels per second?

If you want to be 100% correct, internet speed refers to the speed data travels. That said, if someone asks you “how fast is your internet?”, they’re most likely asking about your Mbps!

Check out @HeyImNatalia’s video for a fantastic, more detailed explanation of some of this jargon, and how you can optimise your speeds.

Finding the best internet for you

With this new knowledge in your head, you can go forth and find the best internet plan to suit your needs. A great place to start is this handy internet option comparison:

nbn internet

A fast, reliable connection that's suited for busy family homes and serious gamers.

  • Unlimited data plans
  • Select speeds to match home needs
  • Telstra Smart Modem
  • nbn install appointment may be required
  • Includes a home phones

5G Home internet

A lightning-fast 5G connection for your home, great for renters with easy install. 

  • 1TB data per month 
  • 5G-fast download speeds 
  • Telstra 5G Home Modem 
  • Easy set-up, plug in and you're online
  • Does not include a home phone

Mobile Broadband

A portable internet connection to use at home, on the bus, wherever there's Telstra mobile network coverage. 

  • Up to 400GB data per month 
  • No excess data charges 
  • Portable Wi-Fi device 
  • No installation, connects to devices 
  • Does not support home phone 

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