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Modem vs. Router: What's the Difference?

The terms modem and router are often used interchangeably, but are the devices themselves interchangeable? And if not, what is the difference?

Both modems and routers are devices that allow you to connect to the internet, but they serve different functions and work in different ways. In this article, we’ll explain the difference between a modem and router to help you learn more about the differences between these two devices and determine which one best suits your needs. Before we talk about how they’re different, let’s first learn about what they are.

What is a Modem?

A modem, which is short for “modulator-demodulator” helps connect your devices to the internet. Technically speaking, it modulates an analogue signal to digital information. The main aim of the modem is to produce a signal that can be transmitted easily and decoded to reproduce the digital data in its original form. There are many types of modems and they all work differently, depending on the type of medium the modem is used with.

Types of Modems

Here are some of the most popular types of modems that help connect your devices to the internet.

modem and router explained

1. Dial-up Modem

Dial-up modems make use of existing telephone lines, also known as Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) in order to deliver internet. A DSL modem takes the information from the computer as an audio signal and sends it through the telephone line to another modem, which changes the audio signal back into digital data. Dial-up internet requires you to re-dial every time you want to access the internet, and you cannot use the telephone at the same time as you are accessing dial-up internet. Dial-up internet has a maximum speed of 56 kbps.

2. DSL Modem

Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) modems, like dial-up, make use of existing telephone lines (POTS) to transmit signal. When used for telephone service, POTS lines only use a small fraction of the frequency the twisted copper wires are capable of transmitting. DSL makes use of the relatively small range of frequency used by splitting the line using a special filter. The filter connects directly to the modem to provide always-on internet access.

There are several types of DSL, but the most common are ADSL (asymmetrical DSL), which provides higher download speeds than upload speeds, and VDSL (Very High Bit Rate DSL), which is a newer and faster technology than ADSL. DSL speeds cap out at around 100 Mbps.

3. Cable Modem

Unlike the previously two types of modems, a cable modem does not use POTS. Instead, this type of modem uses coaxial cables, also known as coax cables. These cables screw into the back of the modem. This type of modem is designed in a way to carry radio and television signals. Cable modems are one of the most common types of modem; their max speeds are around 500 Mbps.

4. Mobile Broadband Modems

This type of modem is also known as a cellular modem or wireless modem. These modems connect to 3G, 4G and 5G networks using technologies such as EDGE, WiMax, LTE and NR in order to provide internet service to mobile wireless users. Modern mobile broadband provides average speeds of around 100 Mbps, although in large cities with 5G infrastructure speeds may reach up to 1 Gbps.

Functions of a Modem

Modems connect your computer and other devices to the internet. They’re used to modulate and demodulate analog signals from an ISP’s Wide Area Network (WAN), so they are compatible with digital signals used in a home’s Local Area Network (LAN). Modems are necessary for many types of internet service, such as cable broadband, mobile broadband and DSL.

How Does a Modem Work?

Depending on what type of internet service you have, a modem may be your primary connection point to your ISP. Your internet-connected devices send a digital signal to the modem, which the modem converts into an analog signal to send to your ISP. Information from your ISP’s Wide Area Network (WAN) comes back as an analog signal, which your modem changes to a digital signal your devices can use.

modem vs router

What is a Router?

A router is a computer networking device that serves two primary functions.

  1. Routers provide wired and wireless connections for your internet-connected devices. A router is used to distribute an internet connection to laptops, cell phones and other technology. This can be done either by plugging an ethernet cable into an ethernet port on your device and connecting that to a LAN port on the router, or by setting up a Wi-Fi network and using a wireless connection.
  2. Routers ensure that information within the home network is being sent to the right device. They also manage the flow of data from your home network to your ISP.

Types of Routers

There are many types of routers that serve different purposes depending on their location within a network.

1. Wireless Router

This is the type of router most people are familiar with. A wireless router acts as both a router and a wireless access point, allowing you to connect your devices to Wi-Fi. Wireless routers have radio antenna inside which send signals across 2.4 and 5 GHz wireless radio bands that are picked up by your device. If you use Wi-Fi, you likely are accessing a wireless router.

Tip: Where you place your Wi-Fi router can affect your signal and speeds. Read this guide on finding the perfect location for your router.

2. Modem Router

A modem router is a device that combines the functions of a router and modem for added convenience. Many people with DSL, cable or wireless broadband choose to purchase modem routers in order to reduce the number of devices they have to set up and maintain. If you are purchasing a modem router combo, make sure you are choosing the type of modem that fits your services. A cable modem router combo will not work with DSL service, and vice versa.

3. Bridge Router

A bridge router works differently than a wireless router in that it does not analyze and direct the network traffic to the correct devices. Instead, a bridge router acts as a simple pass-through, pushing traffic from one side of the network to the other without taking a deeper look at it. While a Wi-Fi router operates at OSI layer 3, a bridge router works at OSI layer 2.

4. Distribution Router

A distribution router is part of the internal network at an ISP. A distribution router gets data from gateway routers (the ISP customers) and aggregates it. Once they have aggregated the network traffic, the distribution router directs the traffic to the core routers in order to connect to the wider internet.

5. Core Router

Core routers are used by large service providers, such as ISPs or cloud companies and connect directly to the internet — the high-bandwidth cables that go from town to town and country to country — and form the basis of most major internet connections. These are the highest level in the router hierarchy.

Functions of Routers

Routers serve a variety of functions depending on where they are in the hierarchy. However, the main job of a router is to analyze and direct network traffic between networks by making, storing and using routing tables.

How Does a Router Work?

A router connects multiple networks and tracks network traffic between them. The router in your home has one network connection to your ISP’s WAN and connects this WAN to your local devices to create your local area network, or LAN.

Routers work by analyzing information carried on the network layer to see where a packet is intended to go. They keep track of what devices are on the network to direct packets to the correct device when they enter the network.

the difference in modems and routers

Information on which devices are on the network and what their IP addresses are is stored in an internal routing table, which is a bit like an address book for the internet. Unlike older technology, which sent every packet to every device on the network, routers make sure that information gets where it needs to go — and nowhere else.

Difference Between a Modem and a Router

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Most networks use both a modem and router or a modem router combo. Although it is possible to only use a modem, most people want the extra connectivity that a router provides. If you would like to use Wi-Fi or connect multiple devices to your network, you will need a router in addition to your modem.

Pros and Cons of Modems

A modem modulates and demodulates analog signals, translating them into digital signals for devices to use. If you have certain types of internet service, you will need a modem to connect your devices to the internet.

Pros and Cons of Routers

A router is a device which can connect to your modem or ONT and expand your home network. A router does not change the form of data from digital to analog or vice versa. Instead, a router works with only digital data.

Which is Better — a Modem or a Router?

Modems and routers serve different purposes within a home network. A router works with a modem to distribute the internet signal throughout your home. A modem connects to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and translates signals from the ISP to local devices.

Although a modem can be used without a router, most people whose internet services require a modem also use a router. Many modems now come with built in wireless routers, allowing one device to serve both purposes and allowing you to connect Wi-Fi or wired devices throughout your home to the internet connection your modem provides.

Do You Need a Modem or a Router?

If you have cable broadband, DSL or some other forms of internet services, you will need a modem for your home. However, if you have fiber internet, such as EPB Fi-Speed Internet or fixed wireless, you will need a different technology to connect to your provider’s internet network. No matter how you connect to your ISP’s network, you will likely need a router as well. This is because a router will create your home network and make sure you can connect multiple devices to the internet.

For those who do require a modem for their home network, you can look into purchasing a modem router combo. This will allow you to have one device which can do the work of both products. Remember to purchase a modem router combo that is designed for the type of service you have — a cable modem won’t work with a DSL connection, and a DSL modem won’t work with a coax connection.

Knowing the difference between modems and routers can help prevent frustration when setting up your home internet network. Making sure you have the right device — or devices — will make it easier to set up and maintain your network, and help you troubleshoot when things go wrong. For more information on the similarities and differences between modems and routers, check out this link.

Or, skip the effort of figuring out what Wi-Fi equipment you need and order EPB Smart Net Plus instead. Our EPB Tech ProsSM will install a warp-speed, whole-home Wi-Fi network with a mesh router system and Wi-Fi 6 technology to flawlessly power all your devices at once for just $17.99 per month or $14.99 per month if you have the Gig. Learn more about EPB Smart Net Plus here.

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