Modem vs Router: What’s the difference for NBN?

Your gateway to understanding when a modem is a modem, and when a modem is actually a router or a modem-router.

You’ve just signed up for a shiny new NBN connection. Congratulations! All you need now is a modem. Or do you? Unfortunately, shorthand terms for networking equipment sometimes create more confusion than clarity, and the differences between modems and routers are one shining example of this.

In basic terms, there are networking devices called modems. Then there are routers. And there can also be modem-routers: a two-for-one device designed to do the task of both. Let’s dive into their similarities and differences.

What does my provider offer?

Most NBN providers will supply you with a modem-router, a device that does both jobs. Though there are some NBN technologies where a modem and a router are required. It’s more than likely a modem-router will get the job done in your home, especially if you’re looking for the quickest and easiest way to connect. Here’s a small selection of NBN providers that offer modem-router bundles on their NBN plans.

What’s a modem?

Whether you’re dealing with an NBN connection or any other kind of broadband internet, you need a modem to get online. A modem is the critical bit of networking equipment that lets you connect to the internet. You may hear a modem also referred to as a node, but that’s more of a technical term that you’re less likely to come across.

It’s designed specifically to liaise with external networks, including the NBN network, your provider’s network, and all those other external networks around the country and the world that comprise the internet.

This is where things get slightly tricky because a dedicated modem doesn’t have WiFi capabilities for connecting devices around the home, and it may be limited to a single Ethernet port that’s designed to be connected to a router (more on routers below).

Compounding this is the different types of modems and the different terms that may be used to describe them. If you’re still connected to a non-NBN broadband connection, you may be using a cable modem or ADSL/ADSL2+ modem.

What’s an NBN modem?

If you do have an NBN connection, you may have a modem provided by NBN or a modem-router supplied by your provider, or you could be using your own compatible networking device. NBN may also refer to the modem inside your home as a network termination device (NTD) or a connection box.

This NBN name for the device is descriptive as it helps to separate responsibilities: the external connection to the modem/NTD is the responsibility of NBN (via your provider’s network), and everything that connects to that modem/NTD is your responsibility (including routers, devices, WiFi extenders, etc.). If you are having problems with your modem, you should contact your provider first.

Different NBN modems

To further complicate things, there are different kinds of NBN modems/NTDs based on the type of NBN connection technology type you have. Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) users will also have an NBN utility box outside their home but, inside the home, the modem/NTD/connection box will need to connect to a router to share the internet connection around the home via WiFi and/or multiple Ethernet cables.

Fibre-to-the-Node (FTTN) and Fibre-to-the-Building/Basement (FTTB) NBN connections will need a VDSL2-compatible modem, and its easiest to use a modem-router for this connection technology; like ADSL, FTTN and FTTB connections to the NBN access network utilise VDSL require a connection to the telephone wall socket.

The newest Fibre-to-the-Curb (FTTC) connection technology also requires a VDSL modem, which is supplied by NBN. This FTTC modem only has a single Ethernet port, though, so to connect multiple devices in the home, including WiFi devices, you’ll need to have a separate router.

Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC) is another NBN connection technology that uses an NBN modem/NTD/connection box to connect your home to the internet. But, like most of the other options above, HFC connections require a separate router to share that internet connection with multiple devices via WiFi or Ethernet.

For regional connections to the NBN network, both Fixed Wireless and Sky Muster satellites also use an NBN modem/NTD/connection box to connect your premises to the internet, which means a router is needed to share that internet connection in your home.

What’s a router?

Not one to be left out of the multiple-names trend, a router is also called a gateway or network gateway. Thankfully, those terms are less common on the consumer-facing side of things, which means ‘router’ is the more common term… except when people who should know better – NBN, providers, retailers, etc. – incorrectly dub the not-so-humble router a ‘modem’.

A so-called “WiFi modem”, for instance, is actually a modem-router (more on those in the next section). Because of this confusion, it’s important to understand the difference between a router and a modem.

While a modem’s sole purpose is to handle internet traffic, a router’s primary function in a home configuration is to handle traffic on a local network. In this context, a local network is the one inside your home, be that wireless (WiFi), wired (Ethernet), or a mix of the two. Technically speaking, a routers job is to route traffic between multiple networks.

Modem vs modem-router

A modem-router is a networking device that’s capable of doing the job of both a modem and a router. As outlined above, certain NBN technology types lend themselves to using a modem-router, while others require a separate router to share the incoming internet connection around the home.

The main detractor of a modem-router is it’s doing the job of two separate devices, sharing hardware resources across multiple networking tasks. That said, modem-routers make the job of connecting to the internet more streamlined, which also means troubleshooting one less device if internet things go awry.

Modem-routers can be converted to act as a router – if, say, you want to recycle an existing modem-router with your new NBN connection – by logging in and disabling its DHCP function. Alternatively, where compatible, a modem-router can be set to ‘bridge mode’ to use it solely as a modem.

Other networking devices

There are a couple of other networking gadgets in the home that are designed to liaise with a modem, a router, or a modem-router. For homes that want as many Ethernet connections as possible, a networking switch can connect to a router to further delineate local network traffic, whereby the router can mainly tackle wireless connections, and the switch takes care of wired connections. Technically, a modem can connect directly to a networking switch, but this would eliminate wireless connectivity in the home.

WiFi extenders are handy for larger homes that want to expand the signal of a WiFi router to far-reaching parts of the home or outside. These networking devices are designed to mirror and extend an existing WiFi network.

In many respects, WiFi extenders are old tech when stacked next to their successor: the mesh network. Mesh networks let you effectively add additional WiFi routers to your home, which means better and more consistent signal strength, all on which is treated as a single local network.

The more devices you add, the trickier troubleshooting becomes, as each device can form a critical part of the home network connectivity chain: one weak link can result in no internet connection.

Now that you know, here are your next steps.

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