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Modem vs. Router: What's the Difference

Written by: Jefferson / October 07, 2021

In order for you to access the internet using a Wi-Fi network, you will need to use a modem and a router. There is a common misconception that these two devices are the same and their names are often used interchangeably. They are both required for internet access for your home network (or any wireless network) and connecting your smartphones, laptops, smart TV, tablets, and any other electronic device. 
Although they are almost always used together and are sometimes even packaged together, the truth is that they are two very different pieces of technology with completely separate functions. Before you start shopping for the best modem router combo available, you should know what the differences are between the types of modems and routers and which one you need to upgrade or replace in order to have the best WiFi signal. 

What Is the Function of a Modem? 

The main purpose of a modem is to connect to the internet using whatever source that your internet service provider has supplied. In most cases, the modem will use a fiber optic cable in order to directly hardwire into the internet. Once the modem has been connected, it will act as a receiver of virtual information and a translator. The devices that you use to access the internet lack the ability to decipher the often complex electric signals and codes that make up the internet. 
A modem will take this complex information and break it down into universal analog signals that can easily be understood by your devices. The technical term for this process is modulator-demodulator, which involves the signals and information. These terms are where the device’s name of “modem” originates. 
Despite having the ability to break down and translate complex information, modems don’t have the ability to transfer this information to your device without a direct connection to wireless routers or ethernet ports. This is where the router will come into play and serve its purpose. 

What Is the Function of a Router? 

A router is responsible for connecting to the modem and creating a private virtual network that can be accessed by your various devices. In order to connect to the internet, you will first have to connect to a router. Most of the time this connection will be virtual. Antennas located inside the router create a local area network (LAN) and can host WiFi networks. However, there are some routers that require cable modems in order to create a connection with another device. 
The router itself doesn’t actually connect to the internet. Instead, it connects to the modem and transfers information either from the modem to a connected device or from the device into the modem. Along with creating and operating connection networks, routers also play an extremely important role in security
They are essentially the first line of defense (a firewall) for your devices from outside malware or viruses. A modem will download or upload whatever information it is commanded to, but a router will act as a filter and attempt to protect you from cyber threats.

How To Fix Issues With Your Router and Modem 

If you are having difficulties with staying connected to the internet or slow speeds, it could be the result of a few different problems. The issue could be with your own modem, device, router, or even a combination of all three. You might also simply need an extender. Before you go out and start replacing your equipment, these are a few ways that you might be able to fix the problems yourself: 

Test Your Connection With a Different Device 

People are often quick to blame their issues on the router and modem, but sometimes it’s the device that is causing them. You most likely have several devices that are able to connect to the internet, but if not then you should invite a friend over and test your connection with their device. If any of the other devices are able to connect to your Wi-Fi and don’t have the same issues then it’s your device that needs to be repaired.

Unplug and Restart Everything

In most cases, the simplest solution is often the most effective. If all of your devices are having issues with establishing or maintaining a connection, the next step involves testing your equipment. Unplug your modem and router from their power source and let them sit for about 15 minutes. 
When you plug them back in they will reboot and reconnect. You should also take this time to restart the device that you are using to test your connection, just in case. Once the modem, router, and device are back and connecting you will be able to see if the issue was resolved. 

Check if There Is an Outage

It’s entirely possible that your issues aren’t the fault of your equipment and you might not be the only person dealing with them. Even without Wi-Fi, you should be able to connect your phone to the internet. Check out a website like Down Detector and see if there are any reports of an internet outage in your area caused by weather, fallen cable lines, or a crash in your local network.

Plug Directly Into Your Router 

If you are still having issues after restarting your equipment and there are no current internet outages, now it’s time to get into the more advanced fixes. The first step will be to plug your computer directly into the router by using an Ethernet cable. There can be a few reasons for a poor connection using Wi-Fi, but by plugging directly into the router these issues should go away. 
If you plug into the networking device and the problems disappear, then you are having an issue with the Wi-Fi. This could possibly be the result of too many devices being connected to the network or your device being too far away from the router and out of range. If you plug your device directly in and still have issues, the router might be the problem.

Plug Directly Into Your Modem 

If you are still experiencing issues after plugging your device directly into the router, the next step will be plugging it directly into the modem. Remember, the main purpose of a router is to create a virtual network for your home, not to connect to the internet. 
By plugging into the modem directly, your device will be one step closer to a direct internet connection. If the connection issues go away, then your issues are the result of a faulty router and you should replace it. If the issues continue, it might be an issue with your modem.

Replace the Cables 

Although it’s a little bit of a longshot, it’s entirely possible that the issues are the result of a faulty cable. Spending a few dollars on replacing and upgrading your ethernet cables might help to fix the problem and save you a few hundred dollars in the process. Unless you have a spare, you will need to purchase a new ethernet cable and retry the tests listed above. Once you know for sure that it’s not the cable, then it must be the equipment.

Replace and Upgrade Your Equipment 

Once you have purchased new cables and retried the other tests, you have done pretty much everything within reason to fix the issue. You should have a pretty reasonable guess where the issue is coming from by now. To briefly recap:
-If only one device can’t connect then the issue is with that particular device. 
-If you plug into the router and have no issues then it’s most likely the Wi-Fi network. 
-If you plug into the modem and have no issues then it’s most likely the router
-If you plug into the modem and still have issues then it’s most likely the modem
Depending on where the issue is originating, you may have to make some switches and replace and upgrade your equipment. Technology moves extremely quickly and what used to be top of the line can become borderline obsolete after a few years. 
If you haven’t upgraded your equipment or devices in a few years, it might be a good idea to take this opportunity and convert your old setup to some new hardware with the best modern features available. 

The Takeaway 

Although they are often confused for one another, the roles of a modem and router are very different. In short, a modem connects to the internet and a router connects your devices to the modem. In order to create and use a Wi-Fi network, you will need to use both pieces of equipment. 
If you are having difficulties with starting connected or suffering from slow speeds, try some of the tests listed above to try to discover what is causing the issues. It might be time to replace and upgrade your equipment. Modem technology doesn’t change too often, but there can be a very big difference between routers. If you are upgrading your router, there are plenty of high-quality options available that can fit your exact needs. 
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