This is an interesting question that we may ask if we’ve found a spare router lying around, and don’t like the look of some of the eye watering startup fees that some internet companies charge just to get a fixed line home internet connection. Can a Wi-Fi router on it’s own give you internet access?
The answer revolves around what exactly a router is, and what it does (and does not) do.
Here is a summary answer:
Having a Wi-Fi router by itself will not give you internet, unless you are also subscribed to an internet service provider which will install the equipment necessary for your router to access the internet, and activate your connection. Alternatively, connecting devices to nearby Hotspots or using mobile networks can also allow you to access the internet without a router or ISP connection.
In other words, having a router alone is not enough; you actually have to have a connection that’s been activated by your ISP, so your router can actually send and receive data from the wider internet. This costs money, but fortunately there are cheaper plans available, plus other ways to get internet access without a router or installed line.
Let’s look at exactly what a router does, and different ways to get internet access in the home and elsewhere.
How a Wi-Fi Router Works
In the context of this issue, a Wi-Fi router is best seen as an intermediary device between the internet and devices. In other words, it doesn’t provide the internet by itself, it rather acts as a middle man between the wider internet and the connecting devices (laptops, phones, game consoles etc).
In other words, just plugging a router in by itself won’t give you internet access. A service provider has to actually properly connect your router up to an access panel in your home, which then connects to the local street node/cabinet, which then hooks you up to the broader internet to send and receive data. In tech speak, your connection needs to be installed and activated by an ISP to work.
It’s true that some internet providers these days just send out routers for free and offer and kind of “do it yourself” setup service, where customers can literally install their router and activate the connection themselves in a few simple steps. This is usually where there has already been a line installed before that just need re-activating rather than activating for the first time.
However, there are steps in the setup and installation process to actually confirm the connection and link it to a specific account that has already been set up, so billing can be properly done and they can get paid. Network providers won’t give internet access away for nothing!
So if you’ve just found a spare router lying around in the home, and are wondering whether you can install it to get your own internet access, then unfortunately, you’re out of luck! Safeguards are built into network infrastructure and installation processes to make sure only paying customers can access fixed line internet connections.
Cheap Internet Packages
A large part of the reason that many people may be reluctant to pay to have an internet service installed and activated is the high cost, plus uncertainty. Installation and activation fees can be very expensive, and monthly service fees are also not cheap in many cases. Many ISPs also lock you into minimum term contracts that are very expensive to get out of early, and are sometimes not transferable to other people without an exceptional reason.
Minimum terms are especially bad for people who really don’t know how long they are going to be at a certain address, or move around a lot with work.
The good news is that cheap internet packages are available that either don’t lock you in to a minimum contract, have low setup fees, low monthly fees, or a combination of all three. You just have to look a little harder, and availability may not be as widespread across a country.
For American readers, check out this excellent search tool for different internet packages in the USA (readers in other countries click the links for search tools for UK, Canada and Australia instead).
Click the blue Filter button and go to the Spend tab – you can filter for packages with low or zero up front costs, plus low monthly cost.
You can also use the Advanced tab search for internet deals that do not have a minimum contract, so you’re not locked in. Installation and monthly costs may be higher though for these more flexible packages, but you can still find good deals if you shop around.
There are deals that can get you an internet line installed for under $40 (sometimes free), with monthly cost also under $40, so up and running for between $40-80. Optimum, Frontier, Suddenlink and RCN are some American providers to check out for cheap packages.
Using Hotspots Instead of an Internet Provider
One way around this if you want to use the internet but really don’t want to pay to have a service installed in your home is to just forget about your Wi-Fi router altogether and connect your devices directly to nearby Wi-Fi Hotspots.
The problem here is that many of the Hotspots themselves are owned by the ISPs, and they’ll require you to already be a paying customer to use them.
Nevertheless, there are some plans that allow you to just pay to use Hotspots on a capped data plan, independent of any package you may have installed in the home.
Let’s cover Hotspot use for the major American ISPs:
Verizon – It looks as though you need to be a customer to use their Hotspots, meaning you have some kind of mobile or internet plan. Their package structure is also very complex – some already include Hotspot use and others don’t and you need to buy add on data packs to use them. See their FAQs page for more info.
AT&T – Need to be customer to use, and on a plan that includes Hotspot use. See here for more details. Some mobile plans that include Hotspot use could be turned into a de facto internet connection, though you might have to buy some additional data bundles.
Comcast/Xfinity – Hotspot use included for free and unlimited with eligible plans, passes can be purchased if you’re a customer but not on a qualifying plan. Non customers can still use certain featured Hotspots for free, but these are only certain Hotspots and not all of them. If you’re lucky enough to live in range of one of these featured Hotspots, then you’re in luck; otherwise you’ll have to buy a pass to access. More accessible than the other two providers though. See their page on Hotspots.
Remember, whenever using a Hotspot, enable Wi-Fi on your phone and disable cell data to save on data usage from your plan. Some companies charge you data from your plan whenever using a Hotspot; others give it away unlimited to customers. See the Hotspot section of this article for more info on this.
Alternative Ways to Access the Internet
If you have a router, but not an internet package from a provider, then there might be some other ways you can access the internet directly through your devices, using other nearby wireless access points.
We already mentioned Hotspots; here are your other main options:
- Ask neighbors – especially in apartment blocks, you might have a friendly neighbor who’ll let you use their Wi-Fi password for a while until you get your own internet set up.
- Use phone data – Can work for basic stuff like emails, but remember that phone data is usually capped, and so if you’re doing this too much, you may run out of data. However, buying a little bit of extra data per month temporarily can easily be cheaper than having an expensive internet line installed in many cases. You could check data plans for your provider. See our article on Wi-Fi and data usage for some useful info on what different types of web activity use in terms of data.
- Public Wi-Fi – Use the free Wi-Fi in bars, cafes, libraries and so on. For working, public libraries can be a great place to go, because they’ll always have Wi-Fi and be quiet. Public libraries also have their own computers you can use.