You’ve probably heard about modems and routers, and maybe access points at some point in your life. They’re an integral part of your internet connection but you probably don’t know much about them. These terms are often used interchangeably but in reality they are different devices that do very different things.
What is a modem?
Computers use digital signals to communicate but the signal coming from your Internet Service Provider (ISP) will often be analog, not digital. The difference between the two types of signals isn’t really important to understand a modem, but the short story is that they aren’t interchangeable. This is where a modem comes in.
Modems are used to translate signals between the digital signals that your computer understands and the analog signals that your ISP is using. If your internet comes in over a coaxial (cable TV), telephone line, or fiber you will need a modem in order to connect.
What is a router?
A router is the workhorse of the internet. It’s what makes it possible for the internet to exist. Without routers, your web traffic would never make it to its destination.
The internet operates a lot like the USPS does. Just like each home or business has an address, so does each computer or server. These addresses are called IP addresses and they identify devices uniquely so that data can be sent between them. To further identify devices, IP addresses are put into groupings called networks. This is similar to how your street address is identified by the city or state you live in. This is where routers come in.
Routers are devices that route traffic between different networks. They operate like USPS distribution centers. Mail is sent from facility to facility until it reaches your city and can be delivered directly to you. In much the same way, each router that your traffic passes through, looks at the address it’s being sent to and sends it towards its destination. If the router isn’t directly connected to the network the traffic is destined towards, it forwards it to the next router. This process repeats until the correct network is found and the data can be delivered to its destination.
What is a wireless access point?
Wireless access points or APs are an easily overlooked component of any network, but are especially important in the modern age. At its core, an AP is a simple device. They broadcast the WiFi networks we connect to every day and that’s it. Even so, the role it fills is . With the increase in the number of wirelessly enabled devices, especially those that are wireless only.
Without this component of networking, everything would have to be wired in order to access the internet. APs are in essence a bridge between wired infrastructure and your devices, allowing them to be portable.
The reason that you may not have heard of this important networking component is that it is usually combined with your router. In order to lower the complexity of home networks, these devices are combined to make a wireless router. This combination of devices reduces the required knowledge to setup and maintain a home network. Going even further, an AP and router might also be combined with a modem to give you a wireless modem/router combo.