Modems vs. Routers

Network yellow cable and router or modem

The internet is a nearly unlimited supply of information and entertainment. But those Wikibinges and cat video marathons wouldn’t be possible — at least on a computer — without the help of a modem and a router. How are they different, and how do they work together to help you get online?

The modem

“Modem” is short for “modulator-demodulator.” (Catchy, right?) Those terms refer to how your modem helps your computer talk to the internet.

Say you want to visit a website. You open your browser and type a destination in the address bar. As far as your computer’s concerned, this request is a piece of digital data. But your internet service provider can’t handle the request in that form. The modem modulates your computer’s digital data into analog waves that can travel along the internet infrastructure. Once converted, your request can pinball its way to the server you’re trying to access.

Next, the server returns the information you’ve requested. The data travels back to your computer, still in analog form. When the incoming analog waves arrive, the modem translates them back into digital data so your computer can read them. (That’s the demodulating part.) In short, a modem acts as an interpreter between your computer and the internet.

The router

Your router handles the communications between your home network (a local area network, or LAN) and the internet at large. The router’s job is to ferry data between networks at the gateway where 2+ networks intersect. This works something like a police officer directing traffic. The router uses various protocols to coordinate the fastest path for your data to travel, with the help of other routers along the way. Most routers today are wireless routers, which also serve the purpose of transmitting a Wi-Fi signal.

The router’s job is to ferry data between networks at the gateway where 2+ networks intersect.

The teamwork

Modems and routers are definitely team players. Let’s take a look at how they work together toward a common goal: getting you where you want to go on the web.

The modem connects with your internet service provider and makes that connection available to the router. The router, on the other hand, regulates incoming data and data transmission.

In short, without the modem, the router wouldn’t be able to access the internet connection. Without the router, the modem wouldn’t know which path to use when transmitting data. Both devices (or a combination modem/router — fancy!) have a part to play every time you sign on.