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What’s the Difference Between a Modem and a Router?

Michelle Ricker By Michelle Ricker April 22, 2021

Summary: Not clear on the difference between a modem and a router? A modem connects you to the internet while a router supplies your home’s WiFi. But there’s also the option of a gateway – offering a hybrid. So which one should you go with? Does it make a difference?

 

If you’ve ever been the person in charge of your household’s internet connection, you’ve likely heard the terms modem and router. Or, if you’ve had connectivity issues, you’ve probably been told to reboot your router to restore your high-speed internet connection.

But what is the difference between these two pieces of equipment? Do they serve the same purpose?

A modem and a router go hand in hand. Essentially, a modem connects you to the internet while a router supplies WiFi throughout your home. Before WiFi was created, homes with computers needed a modem and an ethernet cable to get online. When wireless devices came into play, so did routers.

How Does a Modem Work?

A modem is the connection between your house and the internet. It receives signals from your internet service provider, which any of your wired devices can then use. Your modem is also what assigns your IP (internet protocol) address. Every device is assigned a unique IP address, so it can identify your devices online and it lets the web know where to send the information.

A modem does not require a router to function because it can support a wired connection on its own. Regardless of what internet service you have — fiber, cable, satellite, or fixed wireless internet — you’ll have a modem.

How Does a Router Work?

A router is the connection between your modem and your wireless devices like laptops, phones, and smart home devices. To make that connection, your router creates a local area network (also called a LAN) around your house – it’s like a bubble where your WiFi can live.

A router does need a modem to function. A router doesn’t connect you to the internet — it turns the internet into WiFi signals, so you’re no longer tethered to your ethernet cord.

If you’re thinking, “I use WiFi but I don’t have two separate devices…” you probably have what’s called a gateway. This is especially likely if you lease your equipment from your internet service provider.

How Does a Gateway Work?

A gateway is a hybrid router and modem. The router and the modem are both housed in a single, physical piece of equipment — meaning you have less to set up. If you’ve switched internet service providers relatively recently and leased equipment, it’s a pretty safe bet you’re using a gateway. It can also be easier to reset your gateway when experiencing issues because you only have to restart one piece of hardware — and you only have to deal with one company. If you’re leasing equipment from your internet service provider, customer support for it is likely built in.

Modem vs Router infographic

Is a Gateway or a Router and Modem Better?

As with many things, that depends. Having a single, streamlined device — a gateway — has different advantages and disadvantages than separate routers and modems.

Gateway

Most gateways are leased from your internet service provider since they can make the customer service and troubleshooting process easier. However, they are harder to upgrade or repair in the long run, making them good for leasing but not necessarily for owning.

Pros  Cons 
Takes up less space   It can be more difficult to upgrade 
Easier to install  Expensive to replace 
Streamlined troubleshooting  More limited security features 

Modem and Router

Having a separate modem and router can make the troubleshooting process slightly more complicated. However, having two devices does allow for more customization (such as enabling firewalls) and easier equipment upgrades.

Pros  Cons 
More customizable settings  Takes up more space  
Easier to upgrade  More difficult to install 
Better security features  Requires more wires 

Ultimately, your choice depends on what features and benefits are most important to you, and what’s offered through your ISP. Some people prefer to lease their equipment, particularly if they move a lot so it will always work with your service. Others prefer to own their equipment and set it up in a way that works best for them. Whichever system you choose, you can also implement security measures such as installing a virtual private network or practicing good password maintenance.

Understanding the differences between modems, routers, and gateways will help you make the decision that’s right for you. If you’re also looking for a high-speed internet service provider with transparent pricing and no internet data capswe’ve got you covered.

Michelle Ricker

Michelle Ricker

Michelle Ricker is a Copywriter for EarthLink. She recently graduated from the University of Cincinnati with an M.A. in Communication and has more than 5 years of writing experience. She thrives on storytelling and well-placed punctuation. She currently lives and works in Atlanta.

See all posts from Michelle Ricker.

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