Modem or Router: What’s the Difference and Which Do You Need?

Modems and routers can often be confused for the same thing. But they both serve a different purpose. So what is the difference, and do you need both?

The terms modem and router are often used interchangeably. However, while both devices look similar, fall under the banner of home networking technology and are used in conjunction with the other, each serves a distinct purpose.

Further complicating matters, modems and routers are often sold as two-in-one devices. Giving the impression they are essentially the same thing.

But the device you require will depend on your home network set-up and the type of broadband technology you are using. Most households with fibre UFB will simply require a router. But for households with older ADSL/VDSL connections, you will need both a modem and a router.

In the following guide, we look at the role of modems and routers in a home network, what you require for your network, and some key router and two-in-one modem-router features to keep in mind.

Modem or router hand plugging in router

Modem or router: what’s the difference?

Modems and routers each serve a separate function as part of a home networking set-up.

  • Modem – acts as the bridge between your home network and external networks. Making it possible for your household to connect to the internet
  • Router – establishes your home network and manages traffic flow, be it via wireless (wi-fi) or wired (ethernet) connections

In your home network, routers and modems directly connect to and work in conjunction with each other. The modem takes the signals that come from your broadband provider and translates them into an internet connection. Your router then broadcasts that connection.

As noted above, modems and routers are often sold as two-in-one devices. However, as we explore below, depending on your broadband technology, you may not require both devices.

Setting up your home network: which device(s) do you need?

It’s worthwhile noting that standalone modems have become increasingly few and far between these days. However, while modems are now typically sold as two-in-one modem-router devices, there is a growing range of standalone routers available.

The type of device you require will depend on your household’s broadband technology. Most broadband providers offer plans with the option of a specially configured router/modem-router. But if you choose to use a router/modem of your own, you’ll need to ensure you have the right one. Or if you have specific home network requirements, it could also be worth considering using a BYO device.

UFB (Fibre)

If you have a UFB connection with an optical network terminal (a small box installed inside your property, often referred to as an ONT) you will simply require a router. This is because the ONT effectively acts as the modem in your home network.

In this type of set-up, the router is plugged directly into the ONT via an ethernet cable.

Do note that fibre typically comes with higher internet speeds. If you plan to BYO router, you’ll need one that can handle higher speeds, or you may not be able to make the most of your connection. An older router may be able to provide you with an internet connection. But you’ll be operating at reduced internet speeds.

ADSL/VDSL

If you have an older ADSL/VDSL connection, you will require a modem and router (you cannot use a standalone router). The modem facilitates your internet connection and the router then creates and manages your local home network.

This means that for ADSL/VDSL broadband you’ll likely be using a two-in-one modem-router. There are plenty of options available, and manufacturers typically indicate their product’s broadband compatibility in its name.

Fixed wireless

As opposed to UFB and ADSL/VDSL connections that physically connect to a network via cable, fixed wireless runs over a mobile 3G/4G/5G network. The broadband provider will usually supply a router fitted with a SIM card, which can then be used to manage your home network.

Some fixed wireless routers may also have Ethernet ports, allowing for the wired connection of devices.


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Streamline your home network: tips to keep in mind

An upgraded router or two-in-one modem-router (we’ll simply use the term router in this section) can significantly speed up your home network. Just because your router works, doesn’t mean it works as well as it could. For example, as we mentioned above, old routers may not be able to handle the max speed of the internet plan you have chosen. So you could be paying for internet speeds you can’t access.

However, if you’re suffering from slow internet speeds, it’s worthwhile first to get in touch with your retailer to help pinpoint any issues.

→Related article: Broadband Speed Test: Troubleshooting Internet Speed

Connect data-hungry devices via ethernet

When streamlining your home network, keep in mind that routers come with wireless (wi-fi) and wired (ethernet) connections. If possible, look to connect data-hungry devices, such as a smart TV or gaming console, via ethernet. This will free up the wi-fi component of your network.

Make the most of dual-band wi-fi

When it comes to wi-fi, routers typically broadcast on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The 2.4GHz band offers better range, the 5GHz band greater speed. If it isn’t possible to connect data-hungry devices via ethernet, look to connect these devices on the faster 5GHz band. Mobile devices can then connect on the 2.4GHz band, enabling greater range.

 Streamline your home network: router features to consider

  • Wi-fi standard – refers to the router’s wireless performance capabilities. For example, wi-fi 6 (also known as 802.11ax) is the most recent standard (offering performance upgrades over previous standards), while wi-fi 5 (also known as 802.11ac) remains a widely used standard and appropriate for many households.
  • Wi-fi speed – is measured in Mbps (megabits per second). Routers typically advertise the total maximum wi-fi Mbps capacity across the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. For instance, a dual-band AC1200 router provides 1200Mbps across the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Make sure your router can handle your broadband speeds.
  • Wired speed – LAN ports provide for wired ethernet connections. More ports allow more connections, with 1Gbps (gigabits per second) speeds commonly available. As advised above, using wired connections will free up the wireless component of your network. Furthermore, ethernet connections can provide faster and more stable connections, so the more devices connected via ethernet the better. 
  • Ports – in addition to LAN ports, routers come with a WAN port, providing for connection to the internet, and USB ports, allowing the connection of devices (such as a printer) to your home network.
  • Security – the WPA, WPA2 and WPA3 protocols provide varying levels of security.

Wi-fi 5 and wi-fi 6 routers may also incorporate a number of different wireless technologies, facilitating streamlined network traffic, including:

  • MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output) – enables more efficient simultaneous communication with multiple devices
  • OFDMA (orthogonal frequency-division multiple access) – is a wi-fi 6 feature that improves data transmission
  • QoS (quality of service) – enables efficient network traffic control, prioritising different applications on a network
  • Band steering – automatically steers dual-band devices to the less-congested 5GHz band
  • Beamforming – detects device locations, directing the wi-fi signal where required

→Related article: Vodafone SuperWifi: What Is It and Is It Worth the Money?

modem or router: Google Nest Wifi
Google Nest Mesh Router

Mesh routers: an increasingly popular option

Mesh routers have become an increasingly popular home networking option in recent years. These devices comprise a main router, and a number of additional access points (often referred to as nodes). These can be strategically positioned around a residence to improve wi-fi coverage.

The access points and main router combine to create a single wi-fi network, with each separate node broadcasting the wi-fi signal. Connecting devices can automatically switch between nodes as you move around your household for a more seamless experience.

If you’re looking to improve wireless connectivity over a large area, or if your household has a layout that impedes wi-fi coverage in certain areas, it is worthwhile looking at mesh router options.

There are a range of routers available, with it worthwhile getting in touch with your broadband provider to see if they have any deals available.

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About the author of this page

 Martin KovacsThis report was written by Canstar author Martin Kovacs. Martin is a freelance writer with experience covering the business, consumer technology and utilities sectors. Martin has written about a wide range of topics across both print and digital publications, including the manner in which industry continues to adapt and evolve amid the rollout of new technologies


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