What Is a Wi-Fi Modem?

It combines two devices in one, but performance can suffer

A Wi-Fi modem combines the features of a modem and Wi-Fi router into one box. It handles communication between your local network and your Internet service provider, includes Ethernet ports for connecting wired devices, and creates a local Wi-Fi network.

What's the Difference Between a Wi-Fi Router and a Modem?

Modems and Wi-Fi routers are often combined in one box to create an all-in-one device called a Wi-Fi modem, but they're different pieces of hardware performing specific jobs.

Modems handle communication between your local network and your internet service provider (ISP). They also handle maintenance tasks like accepting the I.P. address assigned to your modem and updating the modem with new settings when your ISP changes its network.

A router is a device that forwards data. Home routers forward data from local devices to the modem and from the modem to local devices. Routers also manage local network settings. A Wi-Fi router adds a wireless radio for communicating with Wi-Fi devices.

All home networks need a modem and a router to provide internet access. A router doesn't know how to communicate with an ISP's network and, in nearly all cases, lacks the physical connector, such as coaxial or fiberoptic, required to connect to your ISP. The modem, meanwhile, lacks the wired and wireless connections needed to communicate with and ferry data to your PC, smartphone, or game console.

Will a Modem Provide Wi-Fi?

Modems can't create a Wi-Fi network on their own. They lack the necessary hardware and software.

A Wi-Fi modem gets around that problem by bundling Wi-Fi router hardware in the same physical device as the modem. The modem and router still serve separate roles, but that's not obvious to the user. Nearly all Wi-Fi modems combine modem and Wi-Fi features into a single software interface.

Do I Need a Modem for Wi-Fi?

You don't need a modem to create a local Wi-Fi network. This isn't much use, though, as it only enables the communication between devices on the same Wi-Fi network.

Odds are you want your Wi-Fi network to provide internet access to all connected devices. That's only possible if your Wi-Fi router is connected to your modem.

Should You Use a Wi-Fi Modem?

A Wi-Fi modem slims down the amount of physical network hardware in your home and can simplify your network's management. Wi-Fi modems also typically cost less than buying a modem and Wi-Fi router individually.

Wi-Fi modems have less impressive wireless network hardware than most dedicated Wi-Fi routers. They often lag behind the latest Wi-Fi standards and rarely impress in range or maximum bandwidth.

A dedicated Wi-Fi router can deliver a noticeable upgrade in performance over a Wi-Fi modem. It also gives you the option to upgrade the Wi-Fi router without touching the modem, something that's not possible when the two are combined.

It's been best practice to keep the modem and Wi-Fi router separate, but some ISPs insist on installing a Wi-Fi modem when setting up service. In that case, it makes sense to give the Wi-Fi modem a shot.

You can always replace the Wi-Fi modem's wireless function with a dedicated Wi-Fi router if you're unhappy with its performance. Just disable Wi-Fi on the modem and then connect the Wi-Fi router to the modem with an Ethernet cable. You can then set up, configure, and use the Wi-Fi router's wireless network instead.

Wi-Fi modem combines the hardware found in a modem and Wi-Fi router in one device. It can't compete with the performance or features of a dedicated Wi-Fi router, but it's often included as part of setting up Internet service and is usually more affordable than a separate modem and router.

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