Cybersecurity is not only a hot topic of concern in the enterprise space but developing your own security infrastructure for your home workspace is critical as well. Especially with COVID-19 over the past six months, securing your at-home network is more critical now than ever. One of the ways to increase your personal network security is to replace stock ISP gear. Stay tuned for future articles where we focus on how best to harden your networking infrastructure to add more defense-in-depth once you’ve ditched your stock ISP gear.
We will cover:
- Modem/Router Combos vs. buying a modem and router individually
- The difference between a modem and router
- What to look for when buying a modem
- What to look for when buying a router
Modem/Router Combo vs. Separate Modem and Router
When buying a modem and router, the first thing to consider is getting an all-in-one modem and router or getting a modem and router separately. A Modem/Router Combo just means that you are able to buy one device that does the job of two. We will explain the difference between a modem and router later on. The main benefit of getting a combo device is price. A modem/router combo is generally cheaper than buying the devices separately. However, we do recommend that you try to avoid this and purchase them separately.
Although a modem and router in one device can work perfectly fine, there are some disadvantages. When buying both a modem and a router individually, you gain a lot more control and flexibility with your network. When they are combined in one device, if something goes wrong there’s a good chance that your entire setup will be broken. It’s also important to note that although initially a combo can be cheaper, in the long run when it’s time to upgrade it can actually be cheaper to upgrade your modem and router separately.
Modem vs. Router
We’ll start with the modem. The simple answer is that the modem acts as a bridge between your home network and the internet.
Not going into too much detail, modem is short for ‘Modulator-Demodulator’. This word originally came from the days when information being sent and receive over telephone lines was more common. When sending a signal, the modem would convert the digital data (modulate) to an analog audio signal which would be transmitted over the telephone line. Then when receiving a signal, the modem would convert the analog signal back to a digital signal (demodulate). This is now known as a dial-up modem. The more common modem nowadays is called a broadband modem. Although broadband modems don’t transmit the data in this same way, we’ve kept the term and continue to call them modems.
There are different modems for different types of infrastructures. These can include cable, telephone, satellite, and fiber. For the sake of continuity and not providing excessive amounts of information, this guide will focus on broadband cable modems. This modem supplies the connection from your home to your ISP (Internet Service Provider) through the use of a coaxial cable, which ultimately connects you to the internet.
The simple answer for a router is it creates a network for all of the devices in your home and, routes the traffic between them. The devices in your home connect to the router, then the router communicates the traffic to your modem which connects to the internet.
As mentioned above, one of the main features is the ability to set up a local area network (or LAN). This lets all of the devices connected to this network be able to communicate with one another. These devices can connect to the router in multiple ways. The most common two ways is through Wi-Fi or through an ethernet cable. When using Wi-Fi, devices connect to your router through wireless radio frequencies. This is why you will commonly see routers with antennas attached to them. When using an ethernet cable, the router acts as a switch allowing you to connect multiple devices directly to the router through the use of wires. Other additional features that may be built into routers can include a firewall, VPN (virtual private network), USB ports, and many more.
What to Look for When Buying a Modem
There are four main questions to answer when buying your modem: Modem/Router combo or standalone modem? What infrastructure do you have? What modems are compatible with your ISP? What service speed do you pay for?
Modem/Router combo or standalone modem? As mentioned above we highly recommend that you purchase a modem and router as two separate devices rather than one device. Although a modem/router hybrid can get the job done if you’re in a small apartment, it is not worth the lack of control and flexibility you’ll suffer especially when it comes to maintenance and securing your network.
What infrastructure do you have? Do you have cable, dial-up, fiber, or satellite? If you’re not sure, call your Internet Provider and they will be able to tell you.
What modems are compatible with your ISP? Most Internet Service Providers will give a list of compatible modems on their website. If you are having trouble finding it, you can search for ‘Compatible modems for’ and then type the company name that provides you your internet. If you’re having trouble you could also call them and ask them for a list of compatible modems that aren’t rented through them.
What service speed do you pay for? You want to buy a modem that is capable of speeds that closely match what you pay for. To be straightforward, if you pay your internet provider for 100 Mbps (100 Megabits per second), but buy a modem that allows 200 Mbps, you will still only be getting 100 Mbps. On the other hand, however, if you are paying for 100 Mbps you don’t want to buy a modem that only allows you 50 Mbps. You would be paying for speeds you’re not able to utilize. With that in mind, if you plan to upgrade your internet speed sometime in the near future, it’s probably a good idea to buy a modem that supports a higher speed to make sure it can supply you with the speed you’ll be upgrading to. Again, if you don’t plan on upgrading your internet plan, look for a modem that either matches or is just above the speed you pay for.
Let’s explain these numbers a little bit. Modems and internet providers will supply you with two numbers, a download speed, and an upload speed. If for some reason they only give you one number, it’s almost always referencing the download speed. This is because the download speed is usually considerably (generally 4 times) higher. So, what is 100 Mbps? 100 Mbps means you can download data at speeds up to 100 Megabits per second. Note that 100 Mbps (Megabits per second) is not the same as 100 MB/s (Megabytes per second). There are 8 bits in 1 byte. This means that 100 Mbps is equal to 12.5 MB/s. When talking internet speed, Mbps (Megabits per second) is more commonly used. It might also be useful to note that 1 Gbps is equal to 1,000 Mbps.
After those four questions have been answered, some other things to consider would be brands, pricing, and terminology. As far as brands and pricing, buying a modern modem for your home that answers the 4 questions above, will most likely suit your needs. For terminology though, when looking at buying modems online or in the store, it can get a little confusing. Let’s go over a couple things.
Firstly, seeing dual-band when buying a modem means that it’s probably a modem/router. Dual-band means that the device is capable of transmitting in two different frequency ranges, which is router functionality, not modem functionality. Also, pay attention to the item description. If it mentions both the words modem and router, then it’s probably a modem/router combo. Try and find modems that don’t include the word router or dual-band to be clear that you’re buying just a standalone modem.
DOCSIS might be another term you see when buying a modem. DOCSIS stands for ‘Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification’, but what does that mean? This is the protocol that allows your ISP to provide internet service through the use of a coaxial cable. Sometimes you will see DOCSIS 3.0 and DOCSIS 3.1. These are version numbers. DOCSIS 3.1 will provide you with internet speeds greater than 1 Gbps (1,000 Mbps). Average broadband speeds in the U.S. fall just under 100 Mbps. So, DOCSIS 3.0 works fine for the majority of people. Keep in mind too that DOCSIS 3.1 modems are commonly more expensive than 3.0.
Lastly, what does it mean when you see numbers like 16x4 and 32x8? The first number is the number of download channels, and the second is the number of upload channels. Basically, higher numbers mean that the modem is capable of giving you higher download and upload speeds more consistently.
What to Look For When Buying a Router
Let’s start this section by saying that routers are being upgraded with new technologies and features every day. If you find this stuff interesting feel free to do more extensive research in some of the technology routers provide, but for the sake of not going into too much detail we’ll go over just the basic key things you should know when looking to buy a router.
The first thing to consider when buying a router is what’s inside. Routers come equipped with their own processors and memory. Just like your smartphone, the better processor and memory that your router has, the quicker it will be and more reliable it will be when adding all of your devices to your network. Especially in the days of streaming services and video calls, this is more important than ever. What you should look for is a router with a multi-core processor and at least 256 MB (512 MB preferably) of RAM.
As mentioned before, you should also look for a dual-band or tri-band router. Single-band routers rely on just the 2.4 GHz band. This can be good because most devices are compatible with this. The downside is there are so many devices already running at 2.4 GHz, it can become very congested especially if you live in an apartment complex. A dual-band router will emit frequencies on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. The 5 GHz band will have a smaller coverage area than 2.4 GHz, but it is a lot faster, and congestion becomes less of an issue. The other advantage of dual-band is you have the option when connecting to your Wi-Fi of using either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz.
Other things to look for are the routers features. Generally, most modern routers will have these, but it doesn’t hurt to double check that they do. These can include: a USB port for connecting things like external drives and printers, antivirus, VPN server, firewall, a phone app, and even smart home integration. A router with better hardware is important again here. Although most routers come with these features now, this means routers with poor hardware also include them. If you can afford it and you want features like the VPN server or smart home integration to work well, you’re going to want a router with better hardware.
Hopefully, this gave you the information you needed to go out and get your own equipment. Remember to return the modem/router that you’re currently renting back to your internet provider once you’ve bought your own equipment.