Modem vs. Router. What Should You Know?

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modem vs router
From reading the title alone, you wouldn’t be blamed for hearing a lo-fi sequence of nostalgic beeps in your mind, perhaps coupled with memories of trying to troubleshoot your modem.

Gone are the days, right? Far from it – this article will debrief you on how modems work in the modern setup where wireless Internet is the norm, as well as how it stacks up in a modem vs. router comparison, including why there’s such a thing as a best modem-router combo and what’s best, modem-router combo VS. separate modem and router.

Modem: The Internet’s Connection to You

As the song goes, there’s no Christmas with you, and just like that – there’s no Internet without a modem.

Short for modulator-demodulator, the modem is your entrance and your home network’s access to the Internet, without which your router would not have something to connect to. (A caveat on this in the Modem-Router: Combo VS. Separate section).

In simple terms, it’s the bridge that connects your home to the World Wide Web. The “modulation” part involved modulating digital signals that are transmitted over telephone lines to be demodulated on the other end.

Even though broadband connections in the present are more led by cable and satellite, modems are still in use today, usually in conjunction with the router (creating a distinction between the four types of modems: dial-up, DSL/broadband, cable, and wireless/mobile broadband modems.)

Modems are widely used to facilitate many other things as well: PoS (point of sale) terminals rely on information stored in the backend modem to cross-check and approve or deny services, applications requiring remote management such as red-light controls and inventory management use modems to control performance off-site, home security systems use modems to rely upon security breach messages to the end client and user, and data transfer and backup are made easy and cost-effective through the efficient use of dial-up modems.

Router: Internet For All

We’re at the next level now: the modem brings the Internet to the home network, and then the router manages it.

Having the signals converted and the connection established and continually maintained, the modem manages signals to and from the router, while the router (as the name suggests) directs traffic where it needs to go – to the modem if it’s for use over the Internet, and from computer to other devices (such as a printer) for internal traffic usage.

The router manages this through utilizing something called the TCP/IP port, maintaining assigned labels and identifiers known as IP addresses, keeping track of which request warrants which response to which device.

There are three modes of physical connectivity, and two types of routers: hardware and software routers, with the latter used largely for routing WANs, having limited ports, and used mostly in the same way as servers without hardware units. Hardware routers are our “mainstream” routers, having default software capability built-in along with an inherent routing table. The physical connectivity modes are user execution mode, administrative mode, and global configuration mode, entirely different from the modem’s half and full-duplex and two-wire and four-wire modes.

Modem vs. Router Comparison

Now that we understand the individual functions of these, how can we understand better the modem vs. router responsibilities, and what do we know about how their hierarchy works?

In a nutshell, your device connects to your router, which in turn accesses the modem that, through your ISP (Internet Service Provider), gains access to the Internet. On a more technical level, the modem stays at Layer 2, the data link layer, with the router at the Network Layer (Layer 3 devices), and while a modem just has two ports (one for the IP and another one for connection with a router), a router can have combinations of 2/4/5/8 ports.

The router is an indispensable part of the equation as multiple devices in a single home, office, or school connect to the Internet and require speed optimization and real-time data security, as well as management and creation of a Local Access Network.

So, if you’re connected to a Wi-Fi right now, you’re accessing the Internet through a wireless network, one set up and managed by your router. In turn, your router is accessing the Internet through the modem.

To sum it up, a model connects directly to the Internet by decoding the ISP’s signal, but can’t create a network or offer wireless capabilities; that’s done by the router, which splits the connection and makes it available to different devices, having a modem that’s already connected to the Internet, making it able to create and maintain a local wireless network on which it can establish a firewall.

Wireless routers also include features such as the ability for Ethernet switching as well as adding a network switch, all of which make it a central component of any modern network, forgoing the need for the complex topographies that physically connected cabled networks required.

On that note, there’s a type of distinction made between a cable modem and a DSL modem and how they compare with routers. A cable modem is incompatible with a DSL connection (and vice versa), with a DSL modem being connected to the phone service through the actual telephone line, whereas the cable modem exists as an odd-on to a cable service (instead of the landline phone).

Modem-Router: Combo vs. Separate

Finally, while most modems today are cable modems, the cable modem vs. router discussion is further still made simpler by the fact that a lot of routers simply have modems built-in, with the combo sometimes being known simply as a modem, sometimes as a router, and sometimes a “gateway”.

There are detailed guides on the Internet for each combo unit’s pros and cons, but while it might bring less clutter and greater ease-of-use, some people report charges to use it from their provider, as well as reports of these being less reliable and easily and more quickly overloaded, resulting in poorer performance. Firmware updates are also handled by the ISP for combo devices, which not only takes away control from the user but can result in longer wait times.

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