Do You Need a Modem and a Router?

Modems and routers facilitate home access to the internet

Broadband is a necessary component for many aspects of our digital lives. Gaming, watching videos, buying music, and web browsing depend on it. There's a long line of equipment and services that brings all those bits to you, and two of the components closest to you are the modem and router.

What Is a Modem, and Why Do I Need One?

Modem stands for modulator-demodulator. In many homes, when internet adoption was still somewhat new, data transmitted over the same copper wiring that telephones used. However, transmitting the binary zeroes and ones of a data stream over long strands of metal isn't easy.

Most Modems Have One Coaxial Input and (Only) One Ethernet Output

Zoom Telephonics / Amazon

Instead, the signal is sent as either high or low. These are translated to the ones and zeroes that computers expect. So, when you send data, a device needs to modulate them into the right signal strength, as well as de-modulate signals coming back.

On its own, a modem connects your home to that outside network. It is identified by your IP address, which is assigned by your internet service provider. If your home has only one networked device, you could plug it directly into the modem and surf away. However, most homes have many networked devices, and you need a way to manage their connections to each other as well as to the internet. That's where a router comes in.

What Is a Router, and Why Do I Need One?

A router is focused on local area networking. It performs the following functions for devices in a home network:

  • Manages and assigns IP addresses.
  • Acts as the local domain name service.
  • Sends requests, such as for a web page, over the internet on behalf of your devices and returns the results.
  • Blocks incoming requests from the internet. More advanced routers let select requests through.
  • Connects several wired devices, as most standalone routers only offer one Ethernet port.

Do You Need a Modem and a Router?

Your home network requires a device that translates the signals of your cable provider or phone company into the Ethernet most networking equipment understands.

For 2-in-1 Devices, Note the Coaxial Input, and the Multiple LAN Ethernet Outputs

Motorola, Inc. / Amazon

Unless you have only one device in your home (connected to the modem over Ethernet), you need something to manage local IP addresses and maybe provide wireless coverage.

Using 2-in-1 Modems/Routers

Modems and routers don't need to be separate physical devices. Some modems support built-in routing capability. A single device takes up a single power outlet. You only need to learn how to use one interface to configure and manage your home network. Furthermore, a single device may be less expensive than buying a modem and router separately.

Most modern cable and DSL providers offer gateway modems by default.

Using a Standalone Modem and Router

Using a separate modem and standalone router is the most prudent choice in a few specific use cases:

  • ISP Support: Your internet service provider may not support these combined models. There's a chance you may be required to use the modem your ISP supplies.
  • Placement: While it's convenient to have both of these functions in one device, separate devices give you more freedom of placement. For example, you might put the modem in a closet, but you wouldn't want to stifle the wireless access point in there.
  • Features: Standalone routers tend to have more and better features than combined models. If having VPN access, advanced routing, or hardware sharing on the network is important to you, you're more likely to find these options in a separate router.
  • Performance: If your router stops working, you won't be totally offline. You can plug a computer directly into the modem. If the integrated router in your combined device goes, you're probably out of luck unless you can solder.
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