Do You Need a Modem and a Router?

Modems and routers facilitate home access to the internet

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Broadband is a necessary component for many aspects of our digital lives. Gaming, watching videos, buying music, and web browsing all depend on it. A long line of equipment and services 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. When internet adoption was still somewhat new in many homes, data was transmitted over the same copper wiring that telephones used. However, transmitting the binary zeroes and ones of a data stream over long metal strands isn't easy.

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

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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 and 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 your internet service provider assigns. 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 and the internet. That's where a router comes in.

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

A router focuses 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 over the internet, like for a web page, 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

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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. The benefits are that a single device takes up a single power outlet, and 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.

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 having both of these functions in one device is convenient, separate devices give you more flexibility. For example, you might put the modem in a closet, but not the wireless access point.
  • 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 essential to you; you're more likely to find these options in a separate router.
  • Performance: If your router stops working, you won't be 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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