If you use a wireless internet network in your home or office, you have probably heard the terms “modem” and “router” from time to time. While some will use the two words interchangeably, they are not the same thing. A modem brings internet service into the home, and the router delivers the internet to the devices in your home via WiFi or an Ethernet cable.
What does a modem do?
For you to even have an internet connection in your home, you need a modem. Your internet service provider (ISP) should have provided you with one, so you may not even know you have one. The modem may look like a small box, and it sits inside your home with a cable leading to the service outside for cable, fixed wireless, satellite, or fiber internet. Alternately, you may see a phone line coming in if you have DSL service.
The internet modem will have a cord that connects to your router as well, along with a power source that plugs into an outlet or power strip. If the modem isn’t functioning properly, receiving power, or tightly connected to the line coming in, you won’t have access to the internet to browse webpages, stream movies, and everything else you enjoy online.
What is a router used for?
The router may look similar to a modem, but it’s a very different device. You’ll need a router to take that internet connection provided by the modem and split it into several lines of service for all the tablets, laptops, streaming video devices, smart TVs, and smartphones in your home. You cannot have wireless without one.
If you look at your router, you'll see a place for the internet to come in via a cable from your modem. You'll also see several Ethernet ports to directly connect to other devices with cables. It's possible that you won’t use any of these outgoing Ethernet ports, however, if you want everything to connect via WiFi. There may also be a few antennae sticking up from the router. Make sure these are tightly connected, pointing up and not obstructed.
Remember that the router can only take the internet you have and split it between all your connected devices. It cannot give you more internet capacity than you currently receive. If you have many devices connected and running, the connection can become diluted to the point that none of them have much connectivity.
This is where having access to the administrative tools to your router can come in handy. It will often let you prioritize which devices get service first. Other notable features that a wireless router can provide include parental controls, uptime reports, curfew hours, and enhanced password and network security options.
Should you rent or buy your router?
If you rent your router from the ISP, you may not have access to these extra administrative tools. It may be worth buying your own router
if you plan to make changes to how it’s used and getting the most customized wireless experience. If you don’t know much about networking or want the ISP to be responsible for router errors or performance failures, renting their unit and giving them the administrator access may be preferred.
Always check your contract before agreeing to a rental. Some ISPs may have a minimum rental period, expect you to pay for care and maintenance to the device, or tack on fees that are worth more than the value of the service itself. Know what you’re paying for before you sign.
Do I need a modem and a router?
The sole purpose of the modem is to provide you with internet access. If you were to only have one internet-connected device with an Ethernet port (such as a desktop computer), you could connect the modem directly to your computer with no need for a router. Most households do not use the internet this way, however, so you need a router for your smartphone, streaming services, and laptop computer
Some ISPs may give you one device that does the work of both the modem and the router. In this case, you’ll see all the same wires but only have to power one gadget. This can be convenient if you don’t want the hassle of keeping two devices plugged in and running.
The downside is that you won’t have any input into the type of router you want, and router technology changes more often than modem tech does. If your internet provider isn’t very proactive about upgrading tech, you may be stuck with outdated router technology simply because the modem works just fine. If you aren’t comfortable with the idea of a combo unit, ask your ISP if there are other options.
What’s the difference between the two?
The easiest way to know how to describe a modem vs router is this:
- The modem brings the internet into your home
- The router takes that internet and splits it so it can be shared by all the devices on your network
It’s essential to know these differences, because your ISP or PC repair tech may ask you to perform certain tests with each, or both, in the case of an issue. The customer service team will often ask that users “restart the modem” or “unplug the router.” By knowing which is which, you can cooperate with the help team to get your connectivity back up to speed again.
The next time someone asks you, "what is the difference between a modem and a router?" you'll know exactly what to say. While they both work together to perform a single function, their role in your wireless network is distinct. Most homes and offices wouldn't have the security or connectivity they need without both.