What’s the difference between a modem and a router?

Taylor Gadsden

Nov 14, 2020 — 4 min read

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On a surface level, the difference between a modem and a router is simple: a modem connects you to the internet, and a router provides the Wi-Fi, or wireless connection, throughout your home. 

Knowing more about how your modem and router work and interact with your internet-capable devices can save you money, time and frustration. We break down these crucial components so you can decide what you need to get the most out of your home internet connection.


What is the difference between a modem and a router?

Before Wi-Fi was a thing, most homes only had one desktop computer (if any!), and the only device you needed to connect your computer to the internet was a modem. Around 2001, Wi-Fi exploded in popularity, causing the number of Wi-Fi devices per home to skyrocket and the addition of a home wireless router to be indispensable. 

Modem vs. router: Which is better?

Technically speaking, a modem is fundamentally more important than a router because you wouldn’t be able to connect to the internet without one. However, as consumers collectively move away from standard computers and rely more on handheld devices, such as smartphones and tablets, having Wi-Fi can seem as crucial as water

What is a modem used for?

A modem transmits, receives and converts data. Whether you use DSL, cable, fiber or satellite internet, a modem is the device that translates signals from its digital or analog form to what you see on your screen. In other words, a modem gets the internet to your devices. A modem can function independently from a router. 

What is a router used for? 

A router is used to distribute the Wi-Fi signal throughout an area, thus creating a wireless network. A router cannot work without a modem. Though these two devices can look similar, a router will often have external antennas and multiple Ethernet ports. 

Think of it this way — a modem is like the engine in your car. Without it, your car would not run. But the router is like a fuel pump because it gets the gasoline (i.e. the internet) where it needs to go.

Netgear CM400 cable modem

modem

Netgear Nighthawk C7800 cable modem router

router

Modem vs. router vs. gateway

 A modem can function independently from a router, but a router cannot work without a modem. When a modem and router are built together as one device, that is called a gateway.

Learn more: The ultimate internet router guide

What is a mesh network?

A mesh network is a type of LAN that uses more than one router to extend your Wi-Fi beyond standard bounds. These additional routers, also called nodes, are smaller than a typical router and cannot function without being connected to the primary router in your home. 

How can a mesh network help you? A mesh network can strengthen your Wi-Fi connection and give you greater connectivity overall, which can be especially useful when working from home

Learn more about modems, routers and getting faster internet speeds in this four minute CNET video!

Should I rent or buy a modem and router?

Nowadays, ISPs are eager to rent you their equipment, usually in the form of a 2-in-1 device for around $10/mo. There are benefits to a provider equipment rental, such as specific technical support and equipment upgrades. But if you’re looking to save money, investing in your own equipment may be the way to go. Check out some pros and cons of renting vs. buying a modem and router.

Renting a modem and router

Pros to renting equipment:

  • Repair and software updates included
  • Guaranteed provider compatibility
  • Technical support on hand

Cons to renting equipment:

  • Use includes monthly rental payment
  • Payment solely goes toward usage

Whether or not you should invest in your own equipment depends on your living situation, your commitment to your current internet access plan and who you’ll be sharing the purchase with.

Buying a modem and router

Pros to buying equipment:

  • One-time purchase
  • Purchase is a long-term investment
  • Decreased annual internet bill
  • Customer gets to pick their own equipment

Cons to buying equipment:

  • Upfront cost of around $100
  • Must install equipment yourself
  • Repair, tech support and equipment updates are contingent on your warranty (not your ISP)


Now that you know the difference between a modem and a router, learn more about the internet equipment in your home and whether you should invest!

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Taylor Gadsden

Written by:

Taylor Gadsden

Writer, Broadband & Wireless Content

Taylor is a veteran member of the Allconnect content team and has spearheaded a number of projects, including a data piece on the top fiber cities in the U.S. and a troubleshooting guide on how to connect your p… Read more

Trey Paul

Edited by:

Trey Paul

Editor, Head of Content

Read bio