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Trouble Trio: Modems, Gateways, and Routers

One thing I used to notice in my IT classes was that many people were confused about modems versus routers. If you added gateways to the mix, the confusion was just intensified. They seem to do the same thing, and you kind of need both, so what’s the deal?

Up until the early 2000’s, it wasn’t uncommon to have what equated to two bricks sitting on your desk. One was a modem, the other a router. Nowadays, these two are usually bundled together in what is known as a gateway. Having said that, let’s take a look at what differs one from the other, and why you may need both.

1. Modem

  • When your ISP came out to set up your internet, they probably left you with this rectangular object with cool lights. Say hello to the modem.
  • The modem has one, simple job. Your ISP constantly sends signals that allow you to connect to the network and browse the Internet. The modem will take the signals that are being sent and modulate them into data that your router and devices can actually read.
  • Think of the modem as a bridge to the Internet. If it’s ever down, you can’t actually cross to the Internet, and thus stuck on your home network.

2. Router

  • Unlike modems, routers don’t deal directly with your ISP. Instead, routers have one job: routing. Yea, nothing special.
  • Typically, a router finds the best route to get to the Internet. For example, if you have 5 networks in one building, each router will figure out the best path to send data to and from each network.
  • At your home, you probably only have one network that spans across the entire house. In that case, the router acts a connection between the Internet and your devices and allows each device on the network to communicate with one another.
  • Technically, you can get away with not having a router, but you wouldn’t be able to connect more than one device on the network. And really, do you want to be sitting near a modem when you want to watch a video on your phone?
  • With the router allowing communication of devices, it also keeps track of what device is sending and receiving data. While this keeps things organized, routers also take advantage of this and add extra security to a network. Some even offer VPN services coded into the router, allowing users to stay anonymous on their network.

3. Gateways

  • While having both a modem and router is necessary for an Internet connection, it can be tedious to have set up or to organize on your desk. Because of this, many ISPs now use gateways for installation.
  • Gateways accomplish the same things that a modem and router do, but in one package instead of two. To put it simply, a gateway is just a router and modem converted into one, beautiful device.
  • If you’ve had your internet service installed in the past couple of years, you probably own a gateway. They look the same as modems, but the telltale sign that it’s a gateway is if you only have one box instead of two on your desk. Goes without saying, but I’m sure someone will want confirmation.

A network is a complicated setup of decades of research and development in communications and technology, so being able to explain the whole concept would take me a whole book to do. That said, having a basic understanding is important, whether you need to troubleshoot your network or you’re just interested in it.

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