Router Vs Modem – What’s The Difference?

A modem is what connects to the internet while a router distributes the internet in your home network.
Router Vs Modem Featured Image

If you only knew how many times someone asked me why we use two routers to set up the networks. I always need to explain that it’s not really two routers but one modem and one router.

But what is the difference? They certainly do look similar.

I will explain this as well as much more in this article, so keep reading.

What is a Modem

A modem “demodulates” analog signals received from your ISP into digital signals that your devices can understand. It also “modulates” digital signals from your devices into analog signals that get sent back on the internet.

These two functions are the main thing a modem does. It is also where the Modem gets its name from. Modulates and demodulates together become a Modem [1].

There are many different types of modems but essentially they all work the same way. The two most common types are:

DSL Modem

A DSL modem uses your telephone cable as its medium of communication between your home and your ISP to provide your home with the internet.

The pros with DSL modems are that the phone infrastructure it uses is readily available for nearly everyone. This makes it cheap and convenient to install. 

Moreover, it is also a very stable form of internet connection. Not being disturbed by your neighbors using the internet or their phones.

The con is that it has a lower speed than Cable. This is because it uses the telephone infrastructure, which does not support as much data as the television.

Cable Modem

A Cable modem connects to your ISP using your television’s coax cables.

The pro with this is that it enables a higher internet speed than DSL.

The cons with this are that since you share television cables with your neighborhood. Your internet connection sometimes gets worse when everyone is watching TV and uses the internet.

If you want to learn what a modem is in more detail. Then check out my article on what a modem is and how it works.

Router vs Modem - The Difference

What is a Router

A router is a connection device that forwards data packets both within your home network and between your home network and the internet through the Modem.

You can think of it as the distributor of the internet in your home. The device that makes it possible for all your devices to have an internet connection. 

It also enables the connection between your devices. Your printer and computer for example.

The router also functions as a firewall and will protect your home network from security threats. Stopping unauthorized people from accessing your network and devices [2].

If you want to learn more about routers. Then check out my article on what a router is and how it works. It covers the functions of the router in more detail as well as covers more types of routers.

In this article, I will cover the router I as a network engineer use the least, but you definitely use the most. The two types of home network routers.

Wired router

A wired router is a basic router that distributes the internet connection through ethernet cables. It usually has somewhere between 4-6 plugs. 

And if you need more devices connected to it you need to use a switch or another router.

Wireless router

A wireless router is a basic router that distributes the internet connection wireless as well as through ethernet cables if need be. It can connect up to 250 devices to your network.

Modem

  • Translate the signals from your ISP
  • Translate the signals from your devices to get sent to your ISP
  • Give the internet to one device (usually the router)

Router

  • Creates your home network
  • Creates and manages the Wi-Fi
  • Distributes the internet connection to your devices.
  • Requires a modem to understand the signals from the ISP.

Do You Need Both?

Technically no. But if you want to connect more than one device to your home’s internet you need a router. 

This is because a modem usually only has one ethernet cable that is meant to plug into a router. 

You could connect this cable to a computer and that computer would have an internet connection but no other device could get internet.

Router-Modem Combo

A router-modem combo, or a gateway as it is sometimes called, is a device that has both a modem and router. This enables you to use one device for both functions instead of two.

Pros

  • More convenient to only have one device instead of two
  • Easier to set up
  • Usually slightly cheaper than buying a modem and router separately.

Cons

  • Need to change both your modem and router if one stops working
  • Need to change both if one device gets outdated

My Recommendation

As a network engineer I always chose to have the router and modem separately, and I would recommend you do the same. 

The reason for this is because router technology moves way faster than modem technology. This allows you to update the router when it gets outdated.

But this is just my opinion. If you really want a device that you can set up fast and that’s it then buy a modem router combo. In the end, it’s up to you.

You can learn more about the pros and cons of each option here.

Should you rent or buy them?

Nowadays, most ISPs try to rent out your network equipment, usually for around $10 each month which is added to your internet bill. There are some benefits to this, but also some drawbacks. Check out my guide on if you should rent or buy your router/modem if you want to look at this in more detail. Here is a quick overview.

Renting

Pros

  • Repair or replacement included
  • Always compatible with your ISP
  • Technical support and troubleshooting

Cons

  • Adds around $10 to your internet bill every month
  • Often expensive in the long run.

Buying

Pros

  • One-time purchase.
  • Often cheaper in the long run.
  • Can choose better devices.

Cons

  • Cost between $150-$300 upfront
  • Must set up the device on your own.
  • Repair, support, and updates depend on your warranty and not your ISP

My Recommendation

My recommendation is to buy your own router and modem. This is because it’s simply cheaper in the long run. 

There is a reason why the ISP is so eager to rent its network equipment to its customers. They make a killing from it. Buying cheap mediocre devices from china and renting them for absurd prices.

However, you should know that I am somewhat biased – I do make money from recommending what devices you should buy. So keep that in mind when listening to my advice.

Bottom Line

So to summarize shortly, a modem is what takes the analog signals your home receives from the ISP and converts them into digital signals your router and other devices can understand.

It also converts your digital signals from your devices and router into analog signals that get sent back to your ISP provider and get uploaded on the internet.

The router works like the distributor of your internet and gives an internet connection to all your devices.

If you want to buy a router or a modem then check out my guides on which router and modem are best for your ISP. 

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