The difference between a modem and a router, and what to look for when you buy one

The Internet market in Africa has diversified significantly in recent years for a number of reasons.

October 2, 2012

By Ross Griffiths, Product Manager at Nology Solutions

The Internet market in Africa has diversified significantly in recent years for a number of reasons.  The continent has access to more affordable bandwidth which makes Internet connectivity accessible to a wider market and mobile devices such as tablets and Smartphones along with an increasing range of online and Internet-based apps is driving the uptake.  However, choosing a device for Internet connectivity can be confusing which could lead to a purchase that is not necessarily the right one.

There are many brands with different features; some aimed at business users and others at home users. A major challenge is the fact that there are many modems and routers available which are not ideally suited for the applications they are being bought for.

The words ‘modem’ and ‘router’ are also used interchangeably, even though they are not the same, and users often do not know the difference in functionality between the two. Put simply, a modem is used to create an Internet connection, and a router is then used to share this connection, often wirelessly, between a variety of different devices such as computers, tablets, smart phones and even smart televisions.

A modem is therefore used for a single device such as a PC or notebook whereas a router allows additional users to make use of an Internet connection either via Ethernet or Wireless.  ‘Pure’ modems are devices such as 3G USB dongles – these provide connectivity to a single device that cannot be shared. A common mistake is that ADSL customers often end up purchasing a router without the modem component, which is then unable to connect to the DSL line.  The customer will therefore need to purchase a modem separately, which is then connected to the router – an inconvenience that can be prevented.  There are also modem/router combination devices available which provide connectivity and routing functionality in a single device.

Another common problem is that home users are sometimes sold devices aimed at businesses.  The home user ends up with a costly device with too many functions which is too complicated for their basic requirements. This can be particularly frustrating for the emerging ‘older generation’ market of Internet users.

Not knowing what features you need for your Internet connectivity requirements before making a purchase often results in devices that typically fail to live up to requirements. Each brand has different features and benefits, and different models are aimed at different markets. Home users may not need all of the functionality that high end devices provide, while business users may not get all of the features they require from a device aimed at the home user.  Therefore, it is important to understand the functionality that you require from your device, and then ensure it matches your requirements.

It is generally preferable to buy a modem/router combination device for ADSL connections, as the difference in price is nominal and a combination device can often function as a pure modem if router capability is not needed yet. This allows a user to future proof their investment whereby they can automatically add devices that need to share connectivity as and when they require without having to purchase additional equipment.

When purchasing a 3G modem, it is important to ensure the specifications of the modem meet your needs and that the network coverage in your area is sufficient and will deliver the required data speeds. There are many different versions of 3G modems that feature various speed offerings and it is important to ensure the speed of your modem, the speed available from your network and the speed you require are all aligned, particularly for business users. If you then wish to share this 3G connection, you need to ensure that your router supports a 3G connection. Most 3G modems are in the form of a USB stick, so the router needs to have a USB port and be interoperable with your modem.

Other features that need to be matched to requirements include Wireless-G or -N, the number of Ethernet ports, USB failover capability, VoIP capability, and a variety of other functions. When it comes to wireless speeds, in other words choosing between G or N, faster is not always better, since new technology (Wireless-N) comes at a premium. Wireless speeds are between 10 and 100 times the speed of the actual Internet connection, so unless there are many devices connected to the same wireless network the benefits of high speed wireless are not maximised. However, if your aim is to run a network that is capable of video streaming, then the speed is important and high speed wireless is the best option.

When it comes to connectivity, it pays to do your research. Having an understanding of why you require Internet connectivity, the application for the Internet connectivity, which features are not optional and what your future requirements will be, is invaluable. This will assist to guarantee that the right device is purchased, saving you money and inconvenience.  And if in doubt, always ask.