Modems vs. Routers: What is the Difference?
You probably have a modem and router in your home, but what exactly is the difference between them? Each device plays a critical role in getting Internet access to computers, smartphones, and anything else you have with online access. “Modem” and “router” are often used as interchangeable terms, but they are not the same thing.
The purpose of a modem is to bring the Internet into your home by connecting to a wall jack. The type of Internet signal that an Internet Service Provider (ISP) sends out is different from the type used by computers and other household electronics. A modem translates that raw signal into a format that your electronics can use.
There are different types of modems out there depending on what type of Internet service you pay for. If you have cable Internet, you need a cable Internet modem. If you are on a DSL connection, you need a DSL modem. And if you have fiber Internet, you need an Optical Network Terminal (ONT) modem.
Each modem has RJ45 ports on the back for ethernet cables. The port that plugs into the wall jack will usually be a different color so users can easily tell it apart. The other port(s) can run ethernet cables to computers or other hardware, including routers. A standalone modem only transmits signals over ethernet lines. If you are trying to set up WiFi, you will also need a router to go with the modem.
A router's job is to “route” data from the modem to other devices in your network. It can do this on a hardline by connecting with an ethernet cable or wirelessly through WiFi. Along with connecting devices, routers also implement network features such as maintaining a firewall for security and managing parental controls for devices used by children.
Routers come with different signal strengths that are measured in Megabytes per second (Mbps) and run on GigaHertz frequencies (GHz). Standard routers have plenty of signal strength for areas like apartments and small houses. But when you start getting into larger spaces like offices or coffee shops, you may need something with a bit more power. Networks that need to support larger numbers of devices simultaneously will also need more available bandwidth.
The placement of a router is also a major factor. Ideally, routers should be placed as close to the center of the space they will be covering as possible. This allows wireless devices to maintain roughly the same signal strength no matter where they are located. Also, try to keep routers near materials that signals can easily pass through, such as glass or wood. More solid materials like brick or concrete are harder for Wifi signals to pass through and can result in poor connections.
Traditionally, modems and routers were made as two separate devices. But today many ISPs put them both inside a single casing called a gateway. Gateways may house both modem and router hardware, but the two still function independently.
At this point, the question becomes whether to have a gateway or a router and modem separately. Generally, having the two units separate is the better option. This will allow users to upgrade just one unit instead of replacing everything, which is good since routers tend to improve faster than modems. It also ensures that if something breaks and a unit needs replacing, you only have to replace one and not both. Troubleshooting is also simpler with separate units than a gateway when something seems to be on the fritz. Not to mention spending less time reconfiguring network settings with only one device being replaced.
ISPs will provide a gateway or modem & router when setting up your Internet service. However, they usually charge a monthly rental fee for this equipment. Check your bill and each month you will likely find a charge that is around $10. There is nothing stopping you from buying your own equipment instead of renting theirs. Everywhere from electronics stores to big box stores with an electronics department sells modems and routers today.
A standard modem or router is typically somewhere from $50 to $100 and will last for many years, saving you money in the long run compared to renting equipment. Not to mention being able to purchase a better unit than what an ISP will provide. Just make sure to select a unit compatible with your ISP since different companies have different network set-ups. The modem/router you purchase should mention compatibility in its description.