Quick question: Without checking, can you say whether you use a modem or a router in your home network? Or let’s say the internet speed has dropped in your office. Would you ask someone to check the modem or the router? Now imagine you’re moving and you need to set up an internet connection in your new home. Do you need both a modem and a router or is it an either/or situation?
Even those who are comfortable with technology and who routinely upgrade their devices can get confused when it comes modems versus routers. You may know that your device comes from your internet service provider (ISP) and lets you access the internet, but—although you may have been using one for years—you may not know whether it’s a modem or a router.
Most people are content so long as the device gives them a reliable internet connection over fibre or Wi-Fi. But knowing the differences between a modem and a router could help you save money on your monthly fee or help you negotiate the right internet connection from your ISP.
Plus, you’d know where to check the next time your device has a poor internet connection.
Modem vs Router: What’s the Difference?
The main difference between a modem and a router is that a modem is your connection to the internet or a wide area network (WAN) while a router is what connects your digital devices to Wi-Fi or a local area network (LAN).The router in your home or office isn’t decoding your ISP’s signal.
ISP → modem → router → your device
A router doesn’t just connect you to Wi-Fi but also creates a LAN which enables your digital devices to communicate among themselves. It’s the hub through which all your devices can access the internet.
A modem’s main responsibility, on the other hand, is decoding the ISP’s signal to give you access to the internet. With a modem, you don’t need either a LAN or Wi-Fi.
To sum up the difference, a modem decodes an ISP’s analog signals into digital signals. It’s then your router’s job to distribute those digital signals to your devices. A Wi-Fi system is how it takes care of that distribution.
What Is a Modem and What Does it Do?
A modem is simply a device that connects your ISP to your devices. It’s what gives you access to the internet. Although there have been advancements in their functionalities, both the shape and size of a typical modem have stayed pretty consistent over the years. Anyone who has ever used the internet either at the office or at home would know what a modem looks like.
A modem connects your home or office to the internet through an ethernet cable connection. But a modem’s job isn’t just to receive the signal. Once it receives the analog signal from your ISP, it translates it into a form that your digital devices can access.
When your home or office is connected to the internet through a modem, that connection is referred to as a wide area network. Any active modem would have an IP address assigned to it. This is how regulators or the websites you visit can identify you on the internet.
If you’re in the market for a modem, it’s also good to know what it can’t do. A modem cannot run Wi-Fi or create a LAN. It’s important to keep in mind that a traditional modem can only give an internet connection to a single device. You will usually get a modem as part of the monthly internet subscription fee you pay to your ISP for internet access.
What Is a Router and What Does It Do?
A router, through its connection with a modem, creates a private or local area network. That connection is then distributed to various devices through password-controlled access. When you enter a café or a private residence and your smartphone detects Wi-Fi, it’s actually showing you a LAN.
Your smartphone, smart TV, security system, etc., are all connected to the internet via a router. Whenever you hear about the “Internet of Things” (IoT)—meaning a world where all devices talk to one another—you’re referring to a LAN enabled by a router.
While a modem connects to an ethernet cable from your ISP to receive the signals, the router will be relaying it through Wi-Fi. This means it has a limited range. If you work in a large office or have a spacious home that’s spread out over several floors, a single router may not be able to give a steady internet connection.
To solve that problem, you may need to buy range extenders that (as the name suggests) extend the reach of the router and expand the LAN. But these come with a problem of their own: if you’re near the extender, you may experience a slower internet connection.
In these cases, a mesh network is the answer. In a mesh network, you have a primary router that’s aided by “nodes” or “satellites.” While range extenders only communicate with the main router, the nodes in a mesh network can communicate with one another. This means they’ll be able to relay high internet speeds to all parts of your office or home.
Do You Need a Modem or a Router?
If you have just one computer in your home, then you need only a modem. This was the norm from the 1990s until Wi-Fi became popular. Before Wi-Fi, you’d have typically had a desktop computer connected to a modem via an ethernet cable. If you wanted to access the internet, you had to use that computer without changing its location.
Now, when setting up a home network, you’ll need both a modem and a router. The modem receives the signal from your ISP and converts it into a digital form which your router will, in turn, then relay to all connected devices.
Put simply, your modem decodes the signal whereas your router is what creates your Wi-Fi network. And if you find you are experiencing slow internet speeds, you should check your router, as it could have bandwidth limits.
Modem and Router Combo Devices
There are devices that combine the functions of both a modem and a router. You can either get one as part of your internet subscription from your ISP or buy it separately. Some of these devices also come with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).
If you’re planning to buy a combo device to access the internet, remember that if anything were to go wrong with either of those parts, you’d have to get the whole device repaired or replaced. So keep in mind that it could be expensive if you end up having to buy a replacement.
Still, a combo device is a convenient option if you don’t require the latest in technology. They are easy to set up and don’t require any technical expertise to operate. Plus, a combo device takes up less space.
Many of us are in digital-first workplaces. This is true whether you work in an office or from home. At the heart of that digitalization is the need for a fast and reliable internet connection. What makes it possible are reliable modems and functional routers.
To that end, it’s important to know the differences between the two. Now, the next time you have to set up a home or office internet network, you’ll know what to ask for. Knowing what these devices do will also help you ask for the right package from your ISP—including things like whether you’ll need a range extender or a mesh network in your office or home to deal with an uneven or slow network connection. Knowing what you need can save you money—and aggravation.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you need a router if you have a modem?
Yes, you do. A modem receives and decodes the signal from your ISP while the router distributes it to all connected devices. It’s not a question of modem versus router. If you have multiple devices, you need both a router and a modem.
The exception would be if you have only a single stationary computer. In that case, you need only a modem. But keep in mind that, in that particular case, you’d only be able to access the internet from that specific computer.
Can a router be used as a modem?
The answer is no. A router’s capability is different from that of a modem. But if you’re looking to save space, you could consider a combo device that has the functions of both a modem and a router. They’re vulnerable and expensive to upgrade, but are also relatively easy to set up and use.