WAN vs LAN: What’s the Difference?
Most computers operate on networks. Network equipment works to transmit data between connected devices. However, computers don’t usually operate on just one network. Local area networks (LANs) and wide area networks (WANs) are essential to a computer’s ability to connect to others and gather data to perform functions where connectivity is required. But what’s the difference? In this article, we'll break down WAN vs LAN to explain the differences between these two networks and their uses.
What is a wide area network (WAN)?
A WAN, or wide area network, is a network made up of smaller networks that spans across a large geographical distance. It is not tied to a geographical location but can connect different networks and different devices across the globe.
Your Internet service provider’s (ISP's) network is a wide area network, as it connects routers from a number of different locations to the Internet. There are several different types of WAN connections, but they all function in the same way in that they connect smaller networks under one larger network.
What is a local area network (LAN)?
A LAN, or local area network, is a group of devices connected together that share a single Internet connection. They are in a single geographic location. However, the number of devices in these networks can vary from two or three connected devices to thousands of devices under one network.
Devices that make up LANs don’t connect directly to the Internet. LANs allow devices on the same network to communicate with each other. LANs are the smaller networks that make up WANs as mentioned above. Typically, local area networks connect devices on a network. Then, they connect to a router or modem, which connects to a wide area network that provides Internet access. The most common LAN IP address configurations are in the 192.168.xxx.xxx range, such as 192.168.0.1 or 192.168.1.1. All of these private IP addresses are represented on WANs by your public IP address.
Understanding LAN vs. WAN
Both local area networks and wide area networks are established networks. But what exactly are the differences when it comes to WAN vs. LAN?
Essentially, a LAN is a simple computer network located in small physical areas. As mentioned above, it's located in homes, offices both large and small, and universities. It can have connected devices within a single building or multiple buildings.
A WAN is a complex computer network located in larger geographical areas. WANs connect computers on a much broader scale. They have offices located throughout cities, counties, states, and even nations, depending on the geographical locations.
While those are the main differences, there are several more minor differences that are important in understanding the distinctions between WANs and LANs. For one, a LAN is mainly private Internet, whereas a WAN can be private or public Internet. Generally, LANs perform at faster speeds than WANs and experience less congestion. Local area networks usually have a straightforward setup, which typically makes the maintenance rather easy.
However, WANs are of a much more intricate design, making them harder for the average user to maintain without more extensive knowledge. LANs operate on principles of broadcasting; WANs operate on principle of point-to-point.
WAN ports and LAN ports in networks
Routers are also an important aspect for both local area and wide area networks. Routers have separate WAN ports and LAN ports for wired connections. The port for WAN connects the router to the modem. The LAN ports are used to hardwire high-speed network connectivity with an Ethernet cable.
On the back of a router, you will see both the WAN and LAN ports. The WAN port may also be labeled as “Internet." Either way, it connects to a modem which then connects the router – and all the devices on that local area network – to the Internet. In router-modem combinations, this may not be necessary.
Routers often have multiple LAN ports, as these ports are used to connect devices that can’t connect to WiFi to the Internet. Use an Ethernet cable to plug a device directly to the router in the LAN port and it will likely have Internet access once it obtains a local IP address.
For local area networks, the router is often the intermediary that connects devices on that network to the wide area network of the ISP via the modem.
Frequently asked questions
When should I use a WAN vs a LAN?
Most home networks and small networks, like a local business or company, only need to use a local area network to connect devices to one another. However, if you have an international company or any network of computers that needs to be connected across long distances, you need to use a wide area network.
Do I plug Ethernet into WAN or LAN?
Plug Ethernet cables into one of the LAN ports in your router. The WAN port is only used to connect your router to your modem.
What is an example of WAN?
The best example of a wide area network is the Internet. The Internet, a network that spans across the globe, is connected to millions of smaller networks everywhere. This makes it a wide area network.
What is an example of LAN?
The best example of a local area network is your home network. All the devices you use at home connect to your router in order to connect to the Internet. They can’t connect to the Internet without a router that provides the Internet connection. Each of those devices also has a private IP address assigned to it. Your router, in turn, acts as the intermediary to connect your devices to the Internet. This is an example of a local area network.
Is WiFi a WAN or LAN?
WiFi is not a network in itself, so technically, WiFi is neither a WAN or a LAN. However, many people think of their Internet connection and WiFi synonymously. The Internet is a WAN; however, your router, which provides WiFi and connects you to the Internet, is a LAN.