Modem vs. router: What is the difference?

 router sending wifi to man using internet on mobile device

A modem and router are both essential components of your home internet system. If you're a subscriber to an internet service provider like Frontier® Internet, you may receive recommendations or even receive these networking devices when you purchase internet service. Understanding what each device does and how they work together will help you make the right internet service decisions for your home.

Everyone wants a reliable home internet connection. Let's go over what modems and routers are, how they differ and how they work together to bring you hours of streaming, gaming and scrolling pleasure.

What is a modem?

A modem is a device that connects your home network to the internet connection provided by your internet service provider (ISP). Most modems include several ethernet ports that allow you to directly connect to the internet using an ethernet cable. However, there are several types of modems, and they differ in how they deliver internet service. If you have a cable modem, you'll connect it to the internet using a coaxial cable. Other types of connections, such as dial-up and DSL, connect to the internet through your phone line. Cable, dial-up, DSL and fiber-optic all need a different kind of modem to deliver an internet connection.

Modems typically work the same, though. A modem acts as a demodulator. Meaning it modulates and demodulates the analog signals from your ISP into a digital signal. Think of your modem as a translator, standing between your internet signal and your home internet system. This allows your device to have a conversation with the internet and vice versa. Without this connection, there would be no way for you to reach the internet.

What is a router?

A router is usually smaller and slimmer than a modem and is easy to place in convenient locations throughout your home. Convenience is key, especially if you need multiple routers. While your modem connects your home to the internet, the router distributes that connection to your home.

If your modem can be thought of as a translator, your router works as a speaker. It amplifies what your modem translates so that all of your devices can "hear" and connect with the internet. Because most people now have more than a computer to connect to, routers have become just as essential to your home internet system as your modem.

The router connects your devices by creating a local area network specific to your home, a Wi-Fi-enabled home network for each device to log on to. The router essentially creates a private IP address for your home network through which your devices can access the internet. Businesses may utilize their router's wide area network port to create a wider connection between two or more offices to create their own VPN.

Remember that you will need a wireless router—a router capable of generating a Wi-Fi signal—to do this. Otherwise, you'll need to physically connect all of your devices.

Modem vs. router: Key differences

The basic functions of a modem are to connect to the signal from your ISP and, from that connection, directly connect your device to the internet. A router then creates a local network or personal Wi-Fi for your home and your home only. Your modem brings the internet in, and the router spreads it around to all your devices.

A modem and a router help your home and devices connect to the internet, but the router can only function in tandem with a modem. Without a modem there to receive and translate the internet signal from your ISP, the router wouldn't have anything to amplify. But without a router, devices that need a wireless connection to the internet won't have anything to connect through.

Does the modem or router provide Wi-Fi?

The router provides Wi-Fi to your home, but only if a modem is also present. Again, it's the modem that connects to the internet and translates the signal from your ISP. The router is what creates a LAN. A router is also sometimes called a Wi-Fi router for this reason. The Wi-Fi signal it creates can be password-protected and only accessible within a limited distance from the router. You can't have Wi-Fi if you don't have a wireless router to set up that Wi-Fi network.

Do you need a modem & a router?

To set up an internet network for your home, you need both a modem and at least one router. If you only want internet access and aren't worried about creating a Wi-Fi network for your home, you'll only need a modem. The most important thing to remember is that you can have a modem without a router, but you can't have a router without a modem.

For homes with only a single computer, a router may not be necessary. However, that computer will need to be physically attached to the modem to connect to the internet. A router—because it creates a Wi-Fi signal—means wireless access for multiple devices.

For homes with more than one person, or more than one device to connect to the internet, routers are necessary. Laptops, smartphones, smart speakers and even smart home security systems now need access to the internet to perform. Without a router, each device or system would need to be physically wired to your modem.

In larger homes, you might find the signal from a single router is too weak to meet the bandwidth demands of all your wireless devices. In this case, you can add Wi-Fi extenders, multiple routers or a mesh network to your home internet system. Your needs and the size of your home will be factors you have to consider before deciding which option is best for you.

The good news is that an internet service provider such as Frontier will typically provide the devices you need to connect to the internet like a router or modem. Depending on which plan you choose, you can work with one of our customer support specialists to figure out exactly what you need to get online.

Can you buy a modem-router combo?

Usually, the modem and router exist as separate devices, but a few modem-router combos are available. These can connect to the internet and create a LAN for your home, all in one device. Deciding to purchase a modem-router combo will depend on your internet needs and usage. A combo is nice if your needs are basic and you want to streamline your home internet setup. Others may choose to have a separate modem and router to make troubleshooting or upgrading each device easier.

What do you need to know about modems & routers for fiber-optic internet?

You may need to replace your modem and router if you change ISPs or upgrade to a fiber-optic internet connection, such as Frontier FiberOptic Internet. Fiber-optic internet, which provides a faster internet speed, requires making a fiber-optic connection to your modem.

While some newer modems can handle this faster connection, the best modem for fiber-optic internet is made specifically for that kind of connection. And because your router, like your modem, will need to keep up with the increased speed of your internet, upgrading both networking devices might make the most sense to you.

When you sign up for Frontier FiberOptic Internet, you don't have to worry about your equipment not working with your internet service. This is because every customer receives a state-of-the-art router for a quality connection. Enter your address into our availability checker to see if Frontier FiberOptic Internet is available in your neighborhood.

Fast & reliable internet starts with Frontier

Everyone wants the best internet they can get, with fast broadband connectivity on a reliable network. Understanding what a modem and a router are and how they work together is key to making the best decisions for your home internet service. However, the success of your home internet ultimately comes down to choosing the right internet service provider.

Frontier offers several FiberOptic Internet and high-speed internet plans to suit any budget and need. From streaming and video conferencing, to gaming and browsing social media, Frontier brings you the network-ready connection you need and the upfront pricing you want. Learn more about Frontier Internet and enter your address to check availability in your area. Let Frontier connect you to what matters most.