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Your internet questions answered

You may have heard of the terms ‘modem’ and ‘router’ which are often used interchangeably, but they are actually slightly different. A modem is basically your ‘interface’ for connecting to the internet, while a router ‘re-routes’ the internet around your home and can provide an extra layer of security.

When you get your fancy new broadband internet plan, your provider will often give you a new modem, but this is not always the case. Often you’ll have to go out and source your own modem. No matter what, the modem is usually your ‘hub’ that connects you to the internet. These days, a modem is often ‘Wi-Fi equipped’ meaning it can be accessed wirelessly instead of plugging your computer in with an Ethernet cable. So think of a modem as like your first building block to accessing the internet. Modems are pretty simple to understand, and are pretty basic in their function – routers is where it gets more interesting.

A router is simply another link in the chain connecting your home to the internet, and can also be another chink in the armour for internet security. Routers typcially consist of three things – the router itself, a firewall and a network switch. A router can be useful for providing another layer of security and functionality. A router can do the following things:

  • Give you multiple IP addresses: When your ISP provides you with one of its modems, you often only get one IP address – called a ‘static’ IP address. This can be problematic, because if many bits of information are sent through the internet by multiple devices, the internet won’t know what device is requesting what. A router mitigates this by providing ‘dynamic’ IP addresses, assigning an IP address to each device. This allows multiple connections at once and they change over time.
  • Act like a handy personal assistant: It gives you ‘dynamic host configuration’ (DHCP) which automatically assigns a new device an IP address on your network. Say your friend wants to come over and watch House Husbands on her tablet, DHCP can automatically assign the tablet an address to work with. This saves manually having to configure one.
  • Act as a basic firewall: A router rejects any information coming from outside your network or without repeated exchanges with a device from inside your network. What this means is, if you’re on your laptop and watching Netflix, when you click on a show, your router knows you are requesting that information to be sent. However, if your router detects some random activity and probing from an unknown source, it’ll stop the flow of information requests and put up a force field between your devices and the outside world. Think of your router like a moat around your very own castle, and your devices are the people living inside the castle.
  • Act as a network switch: A network switch is a function that allows devices in the network to talk to each other, instead of just directly to the internet. Without this switch, transferring files from your phone to your laptop may not be possible. Think of the bigger picture like a spider’s web full of interconnected devices, with the internet in the middle.

While many ISPs interchange the terms ‘modem’ and ‘router’, the fact is that they serve a few different purposes. Chances are, if your ISP says it includes a modem in its internet package, it’s a router you are getting as well. This simply enables you to ‘plug and play’ all your devices onto the router so you can start enjoying the internet across multiple devices sooner.

The answer is probably, yes. Buying your own modem can often work out to be cheaper in the long term than simply ‘renting’ one from your provider. And you get to keep it should you wish to change providers at a later time! The problem is many providers charge over $100 for routers that can be matched by a third party product in terms of quality for half the price.

The cheapest ‘aftermarket’ routers can be found for about $30, and spending a little more can get you much more ‘bang for buck’. Often, broadband providers love including modems /routers in their bundles. While many include it ‘for free’, you may be able to supply your own modem and get an even cheaper plan. It definitely pays to shop around and consider pesky modem costs the next time you’re in the market for a new internet plan.

Generally, more expensive routers tend to have a higher speed capacity.

  • 11n routers – expect to pay anywhere from around $80 and up. This is the standard most routers boast today. Theoretically they are capable of up to 300Mbps speeds, but in reality there are a myriad of factors that can affect this.
  • 11ac routers – expect to pay at least $100, with some costing up to $1,000. This is the latest in router speed technology. They bring a wider channel (up to 160Mhz versus 40Mhz), plus ‘beamforming’ – a technology to better send Wi-Fi signals straight to your device instead of bouncing around the house. These routers are capable of speeds up to a gigabit per second – and higher.

Apart from speed capacities, dearer routers also tend to boast some extra bells and whistles.

Dearer routers generally feature enhanced speed capacity, from 300Mbps improved to over 1Gbps; effective antenna range, some with multiple antennas to reach further nooks and crannies in your home; less interference, with improvements from 2.4Ghz to 5Ghz to make maintaining speed while connecting a lot of devices easier; router ports and other bells and whistles, which aid in connecting multiple devices – some even have USB ports to help making connecting your printer easy. So while you can expect to pay more, the fact is you get more bells and whistles and upgraded technology. What you spend now, you could save later by not having to upgrade for a while.

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