What’s the Difference: Modem, Router and Access Point

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Connecting to the Internet seems simple. You hop on Wi-Fi, upload to Facebook, and boom: you’re connected! But when something goes wrong, or it’s time to upgrade your device to something faster, you’ll need to understand what all those little black boxes do. Here’s a quick of the basic networking equipment that helps keep your home connected.

A modem connects you to the Internet.

A modem is your gateway to the Internet—cable, fiber or phone lines go through your neighborhood, to your house, and connect to your Modem. The Modem converts the 1s and 0s from your computer into analog information for the cable or telephone wire to transmit out to the world and translates the incoming analog signals the same way. That is called modulation and demodulation, respectively, and that’s where it gets its name.

Usually, your internet service provider (ISP) will provide you with a modem for a small monthly fee. However, depending on the ISP you use, you can buy your Modem and save some money.

A router connects your devices to the Modem.

If you only have one computer in your house, you can plug it straight into your Modem with an Ethernet cable and call it a day when you’ll be connected to the Internet and watching videos in no time.

But most people have multiple computers in their home, not to mention smartphones, tablets, e-readers, and a host of other devices. Standalone modems cannot send data to multiple devices simultaneously: they usually have only one Ethernet port and only generate an IP address that identifies your location to the Internet (just like your street address in the real world).

A router connects all of your home’s devices via an Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi, then connects to a modem. It gives each device its internal IP address, which it uses to route traffic between them. If the Modem’s IP address is the same as the street address of the building, your Router’s internal IP address is the same as the apartment number. Your Modem receives information from the Internet, sends it to the Router, and sends it to the requesting computer.

The network created by your Router is called a local area network or LAN, and it connects you to a wider area network or LAN. In most cases, home, your LAN, for all intents and purposes, the Internet.

Not all routers include Wi-Fi; some computers only connect with an Ethernet cable. That’s where the next device comes in.

An Access Point adds wireless connectivity.

Once upon a time, all computers connected to the Internet through a messy tangle of wires. Today, however, we can connect all those devices to your home network (and thus the Internet) via Wi-Fi. To do that, you need something to broadcast that wireless signal.

The Wireless Access Point connects to your Router, usually via Ethernet, and communicates with non-Ethernet devices over wireless frequencies. Most home users have routers with built-in wireless access points. However, standalone access points are still popular with businesses, as you can pair multiple access points together to expand your network over a large area.

Recently, mesh networking kits have become popular for larger homes with many dead spots, as they allow multiple units to coat your home in Wi-Fi more efficiently than single devices expand the area. They can act as wireless access points if you already have a router, or they can take over the Router’s job as well, although they usually have less advanced features.

Switch to connect more computers to the Router

All routers have built-in Ethernet ports, but depending on the size and type of Router you buy, you may not have enough to plug in all your devices, especially in the age of smart home technology, which often requires many hard-wired base stations.

If you run out of Ethernet ports on your Router, the switch can add more Ethernet ports to your network. You plug your additional devices into the switch, plug the switch into the Router, and they will appear on your network.

Note that you need a Router to use a switch. An adapter that can’t assign an IP address or create a network like your Router can designate it to act as a traffic cop for the signals to pass through.

Please don’t confuse a switch with a hub, which looks almost the same, but works very differently: instead of routing traffic between multiple devices, a hub receives the incoming signal and copies it to all devices on the hub. That is uncommon in modern home use.

These features can be combined into units.

Not everyone has their Modem, Router, and access point in the house. Today, you will find many of these features combined into one device. For example, as we mentioned above, most people use a wireless router, combining the Router with a wireless access point. Many people even use modem/Router combo units, which contain Modem, Router, and wireless access point all in one device. They can save space and eliminate some cords, but like shampoos and conditioners, some people prefer to keep these devices separate, allowing for more choice.


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