Most broadband internet service providers (ISPs) throw in a free wireless router with their broadband deals. This is a welcome but necessary extra. As well as being your gateway to the internet, a router also provides wired and wireless connectivity to the rest of your home. It means you can do useful things like access the broadband with Wi-Fi, share files and use smart home gadgets.
But while the free router supplied with a broadband package is a simple and cheap way to get your internet connection up and running, it isn’t the only option. You may also be able to use your own hardware.
Buying your own Wi-Fi router: the key points
You certainly don’t have to get your own router, but it might be worth considering if you find the freebie isn’t quite up to scratch.
ISP hardware is designed to be all things to all people. Like a rental car, it fits the majority of people and can do the majority of things you might want to do with it. It’s not the fastest, the coolest, the most customisable, or tuned to do one particular thing very well.
If your requirements fall outside of the norm, using your own router is a way to address them.
Why use your own home broadband router?
The advantages of using your own router are:
- More control over your network.
- Better network security.
- Faster Wi-Fi and networking.
- Better Wi-Fi signal coverage.
- Access to open-source firmware.
- Advanced features such as QoS.
More control over your network
The hardware supplied by your provider is designed to be easy to set up and maintain. You can get your connection up and running quickly, and the provider can help when there’s a problem.
The downside is that you’re sometimes limited in how that network is set up. This is fine for most people, but if you’re into computers or like to experiment with technology, this solution just won’t do.
For example, using ISP hardware means you can be limited to a specific IP address range and a couple of network cable connections. You may also be limited in what Wi-Fi channels you can use, and it might not provide useful features such as QoS.
Using your own router leaves you free to set up your network the way you want it.
Better network security
ISP-supplied routers are often locked down so you can’t do much with them. You might not be able to change the admin username, the firewall settings may be limited and, crucially, security updates may be slow to arrive.
Whether you’re a networking enthusiast or just have a passing interest, these can all be things you’ll miss. Every hacker on the planet knows that “admin” is often the default username for routers. Not being able to change that means you’ll have to be extra careful when setting a password.
Your provider also might have remote access to the router. They may only ever log in to help reset a password or perform other support duties, but the potential for abuse or tracking is there.
Another major issue can be the lack of security updates. It means that one exploit can be used by hackers to attack a huge number of routers at once. This was starkly demonstrated when a security hole in TalkTalk routers exposed many customers to hack attacks. It’s not something that most of us want to have to deal with.
Using your own router means you can be in full control of your own security. You can lock down the router with secure logins, use advanced firewall protection, keep software updated, and perform many other tasks that make up a fast and secure network.
Faster Wi-Fi and networking
ISP routers are usually free, so it’s not surprising to discover they don’t typically pack the latest technology. They might not support the faster speeds that the top networks offer, and the hardware inside is often quite slow compared to some of the routers you can buy yourself.
This is usually most apparent with Wi-Fi. Even the latest ISP routers can have relatively sluggish Wi-Fi speeds compared to the products currently available to buy. Upgrading to even a mid-range model can allow you to enjoy significantly quicker Wi-Fi speeds.
Better Wi-Fi signal coverage
If internet speed isn’t an issue, signal strength often is. If you have a large home or an older one with thick walls, Wi-Fi signal strength can often fall short when using an ISP router. You’ll need to experiment with channels or buy repeaters to get a good signal. But replace that ISP router and both signal speed and strength can increase. You may even be able to improve the signal even further with an open-source firmware upgrade. That’s something you often can’t do with a free router.
Access to open-source firmware
Ever heard of Tomato or DD-WRT? These are free open-source firmware upgrades that can deliver a wealth of new features for your router. And if you don’t like either of those, then there are plenty of other options that open up when you buy your own router.
This free software can turn a £100 router into something more like a £1000 router.
They replace the factory software on the router and bring some powerful toys to the table. You can boost Wi-Fi signal strength, use built-in DNS, VLANs, router-based VPN clients, and enjoy comprehensive QoS or Quality of Service controls, among many other features.
Use advanced features such as QoS
Quality of service (QoS) is a traffic management feature that guarantees certain types of traffic. For example, if you’re a gamer, you can use QoS to make sure your game traffic or stream is prioritised over all other traffic. You’ll be able to do this even if you don’t have a dedicated gaming router. So if your family is watching Netflix, your game always goes first. This can especially help if you’re cloud gaming.
You can use QoS to prioritise your IP address or a given traffic type. It doesn’t just work for games, either. You can set QoS for video conferencing, streaming media, VoIP, cloud applications and anything you need to guarantee bandwidth for. It’s a very powerful feature.
Buying a router to use instead of the ISP-issued hardware can provide more advanced networking features, or at least offer you a greater amount of control over common functions.
How to buy your own router
So what do you need to know if you want to replace the ISP router with your own?
First, check that your ISP actually allows the use of another router. Some providers don’t support devices from other router manufacturers.
In some cases, you’ll need to keep the ISP router and use it as a modem, with your new Wi-Fi router connected to it. The old ISP router will provide the internet connection while your new router handles the networking.
If your provider has confirmed you can, then you need to select the correct router type for your connection.
What type of router should I buy?
If you use ADSL, choose a router that has an integrated ADSL modem.
For fibre broadband services using a BT Openreach telephone line, which will be most fibre providers outside of Virgin Media, a router with a VDSL modem is needed.
The broadband can also be set up with a separate modem and router, which is useful if you already own a router that lacks the appropriate modem.
In this case, the modem is connected to the phone line and then linked to the router with a cable. The modem supplies internet access, while the router handles networking and Wi-Fi.
This used to be how most fibre broadband was set up, but increasingly we’re seeing ISPs simply provide all-in-one modem/routers. If you have an Openreach engineer attend to set up the broadband and the ISP has supplied a combination router, ask if they have a spare BT Openreach modem they can give you.
For Virgin Media, you must use the supplied Virgin Media Hub for internet access. But set it to modem mode and your choice of Wi-Fi router can be hooked up to handle other network functions.
What features should you look for when buying a Wi-Fi router?
802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) or 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) Wi-Fi
If you have a router with an older type of Wi-Fi, you might find it is unable to handle the top speed of your broadband connection or your devices. So when buying a modern router, make sure it supports at least 802.11ac (aka Wi-Fi 5) in order to get the best performance.
That said, it's worth investing a little more in an 802.11ax, or a Wi-Fi 6 router. While not supported by as many devices as Wi-Fi 5 just yet, it will offer some degree of future-proofing.
Having support for gigabit wired networking will let you enjoy the fastest speeds when using ethernet cables. Gigabit network ports are back-compatible so you can continue to use existing devices, while also ensuring your network can handle the faster transfer speeds of newer hardware.
Dual-band and tri-band
Most Wi-Fi operates on two different frequencies: 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz. The 5Ghz band is fast but has a shorter range, while 2.4Ghz is longer range but slower and more susceptible to interference.
Dual-band routers or tri-band routers let you use both at the same time by hosting multiple Wi-Fi networks. This will usually be 1x 2.4Ghz and 1x 5Ghz for dual-band, or 1x 2.4GHz and 2x 5Ghz for tri-band.
This is helpful if there are lots of other Wi-Fi networks nearby as you can minimise conflicts and interference.
You can also configure the network so devices that don’t need the very best performance, such as printers, connect to 2.4Ghz. While games consoles, streaming TV, and other demanding hardware utilise the quicker 5Ghz signal.
Though not essential for many of us, this can be a nice extra to have. USB ports provide access to other connected devices like USB printers over the wired and wireless network and allow you to easily add networked hard drives to share files.
Open-source firmware support
Fancy getting your hands dirty with open-source firmware such as DD-WRT? Installing new router firmware can unlock advanced features that aren't supported out of the box. Before buying, check you’ll be able to do this by consulting the list of supported hardware on the firmware’s website.
Quality of Service is an incredibly useful feature that allows you to manage the bandwidth allocated to particular devices or tasks. For example, you could put a limit on the speed of web browsing, something which doesn’t necessarily require superfast connectivity, in order to grant more bandwidth for streaming Netflix.
When it comes to QoS settings, not all routers are equal, and some may only provide very basic controls. If you’re likely to make use of QoS it’s worth investigating what kind of customisation a router offers, before plonking down the cash.
Check that your new router supports the use of a guest Wi-Fi network. This lets you provide visitors with internet access while protecting the rest of your network; read our guide to guest Wi-Fi to learn more.
Where to buy your own router?
Routers can be bought anywhere you’d usually purchase technology. Big shops like Currys and Amazon will sell them, and you should find reviews from other users there too. But smaller computing and tech shops will stock them too.
There’s not a particular place that it’s good to buy routers from, as they aren’t technically considered a specialist product. A lot of well-known tech companies like Netgear and Asus do make routers as well. Just do a little research, check out the reviews, and find the router that works best for what you need it for.
The downsides to using your own router
There are two main downsides to replacing the ISP router with your own: the expense and the responsibility.
A good quality router with advanced features will cost in excess of £100. Prices will vary depending on the features you require, the type of connection you need, and the number of ethernet ports you want. But if you desire the latest technology, you can easily end up spending hundreds on a new router.
The main benefit of using an ISP router is that it’s plug-and-play. Once set up, you leave it alone and it provides internet access.
But buy your own and the buck stops with you. You have to configure it, monitor it, and troubleshoot it should something go wrong. You may also need to set your ISP router to modem only or bridged mode, or call your ISP and have them allow your router’s MAC address onto their network. Your ISP may also not be able to help you if you have any problems with your router, so if you don’t know how to fix it, you’ll need to pay to get someone else to look at it.
But if you’re happy with that, using your own router is a definite step forward in optimising and taking control of your home network.
The free router from your ISP works well for most people and is the best option if you're just concerned about getting broadband with home Wi-Fi and aren't interested in the technical details.
But if you want to better protect your broadband, improve Wi-Fi speeds, or just learn more about networking, then buying your own router is a great idea. If you mostly use Wi-Fi to access the internet, a new router can definitely improve your speeds and the reach of your broadband. It also gives you the opportunity to do things like create a guest network for visitors.
If you’re a tech-savvy person who is eager to improve their broadband or just to play with your router, provided your ISP allows it, getting a new router is a great idea. It’s not as simple as an ISP router to set up, but the extra speeds, features, and security are worth it.
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