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What is a broadband router? All you need to know about Wi-Fi routers

Home Wi-Fi router

A home broadband router is a device that lets you connect to the internet in your home. 

To get online, you need to be able to connect to a broadband network. And when it comes to home broadband, you'll need a router to do that.

A router contains a modem that can communicate with a broadband network. It also includes home networking features for sharing the connection and communicating between devices within your home.

Almost all broadband deals include a router as part of the deal, but sometimes it’ll be called a 'hub'. Very often a router will be bundled in for free when you sign up to a broadband package, so there’s no need to purchase anything beforehand.

Wi-Fi routers: the key points

  • A router lets you connect to the internet and use Wi-Fi at home.
  • Almost all broadband deals include a free router.
  • You can purchase your own router, but it must be compatible with your provider.

What does a router do?

A home broadband router has two core functions:

Internet access

Routers have a modem to connect to your broadband provider.

Many newer routers support different types of networks, so they’ll work with almost all broadband providers. Others might not have the right hardware for a specific type of broadband. So, if you’re buying your own router, you’ll need to check it supports your broadband network.

If your internet service provider supplies the router, then it’ll definitely be the correct model for your broadband.

Home networking

Today’s routers also offer a wealth of home networking features.

On the most basic level, you can easily share an internet connection via wired or wireless connectivity. But it also allows you to share files between systems, stream media around the home, and implement security measures to protect your home network.

  • Wi-Fi router jargon buster

    There’s no shortage of technical jargon associated with routers, so here’s a brief rundown of some key terms.

    Read our broadband glossary for further help with broadband terminology.

    DHCP
    Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol. A network protocol that automatically assigns an IP address to devices connected to the network, so they can use your network and internet without any manual configuration.

    IP Address
    Internet Protocol Address. An identifying number assigned to any device connected to a network. 

    LAN
    Local Area Network. A computer network with a limited geographic area, such as within an office or home.

    Modem
    Modulator-demodulator. A device which translates data to and from the format required to transmit it to another computer.

    WAN
    Wide Area Network. A computer network over a very wide area. The internet is the world’s largest WAN.

    Wi-Fi
    Wi-Fi is a family of wireless networking technologies.

How does a Wi-Fi router work?

To access the internet, broadband routers have an internal modem. This modem connects to the phone, fibre, or cable line through an ‘ADSL’ or ‘WAN’ port on the back of the router.

Your router also hosts a local network for sharing devices and files, which you can access with either Local Area Network (LAN) cables or Wi-Fi. 

By default, anything connected to either the LAN or Wi-Fi will gain access to the internet.

The modem and the network hardware work together in the router to provide all this functionality to connected devices. But if you’re not online, the internal network will continue to function even without internet access.

In some instances, the modem and the router can be separate pieces of hardware. This is less common in the UK, but isn’t an unfamiliar setup for fibre broadband. It’s also possible to have a separate DSL modem and router, but an all-in-one broadband router is standard and the best solution for most people.

Mobile broadband routers are also available. Usually, if we say ‘3G router’, ‘4G router’ or '5G router', it’s used to refer to a Wi-Fi dongle (also known as MiFi) that connects to a mobile network and shares connectivity via wireless hotspot. However, there are also mobile broadband routers that resemble home broadband hardware - such as those bundled in with Three's deals. But rather than using fixed-line home broadband, they have either a SIM card slot or a USB port for mobile broadband dongles.

  • Why are some routers called broadband hubs?

    Some ISPs refer to their routers as hubs, most notably BT broadband (Home Hub), Sky broadband (Sky Hub) and Virgin Media broadband (Hub).

    These are different words for the same thing, there is no practical difference between a hub and a router. Some providers continue to use 'router' to describe their home broadband and networking equipment, including TalkTalk and EE.

    You may also see them referred to as wireless routers and, less commonly, residential gateways. There is no difference between these; all routers will offer wireless networking, and 'residential gateway' is an older term which was used to distinguish them from high-end networking gear at a time when home routers had a far more limited feature set.

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The importance of router security

A Wi-Fi router isn’t just your gateway to the internet, it’s also a gatekeeper. It helps to protect you from attacks from the outside and keeps your information private. If your router isn’t secured, then any device connected to the router can potentially be compromised, and any data you send could be exposed.

For this reason, there are several basic steps everyone should take to bolster router security.

Change the admin password

Your router’s settings are protected with an admin password. That’s great to know, but it’s sometimes a very insecure default password that’s the same for every model from that manufacturer. You should change this immediately so only you have access.

Password protect your Wi-Fi

Your Wi-Fi network should always have a password to ensure that only authorised users can connect. It should also use either the ‘WPA2’ or ’WPA3’ security standard.

Set up a guest network

Some routers offer a guest network feature. This secondary Wi-Fi network provides an internet connection but keeps guests in their own section of your home network. This blocks them from having access to any shared devices and files.

Monitor connected devices

You should use your router’s admin controls to view what smartphones, laptops and devices are connected to your home network. Check this regularly to make sure that no unauthorised users have access to your broadband connection.

For further help with configuring your router, read our guide to router security.

What are the best Wi-Fi broadband routers?

The best free broadband ISP routers

Since the routers included with Wi-Fi deals are free, they don’t tend to offer the very latest standards and lots of advanced extras. But they will suit the needs of most households, and you can’t beat the price! 

We have a selection of Wi-Fi router round-ups for some of the bigger names in broadband. If you're interested in finding out which broadband router you'll get sent when you sign up for a new deal, you should find the answer in one of these pages:

The best routers you can buy in 2024

If you’d prefer to buy your own Wi-Fi router, here are some of the best models for 2024.

Frequently asked questions about routers

  • What is a broadband router and how is it different to a modem?

    A router hosts and manages a network, ensuring that data traffic is routed to the right place.

    A modem transmits data by converting it to and from the format required to send it to another computer, such as via a phone line or wireless radio signal.

    Most routers include a broadband modem, though you can also have a separate modem and router.

  • How far can a wireless router reach?

    For 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, which is the frequency used for 802.11b/g/n, the typical range is around 150ft indoors and 300ft outdoors. For 5GHz (802.11ac/ax) networks, the range is about a third of 2.4GHz signals.

    But keep in mind that range depends on various factors, such as the strength of the transmitter and interference from obstructions and other devices.

  • Do you need more than one router?

    One router is all you need to operate a home network and get broadband service. Adding another router can be done if you set additional devices to operate in ‘bridging’ or ‘access point’ modes, where they are used to extend the reach of your network.

  • Do you need a broadband booster?

    A booster or extender can be used to extend the reach of a wireless network. If you find that the signal is very weak, then a booster can be a cheap and easy way to improve reception. However, boosters can impact the speed of the connection, so if you need to ensure fast wireless internet reaches every corner of your home, it's worth investing in a mesh Wi-Fi kit.

    Another option to consider is a powerline adapter, which uses your electrical circuits to transmit data.

Expert Summary

Your router is an important piece of tech that helps you get online at home or at work. Fortunately, it’s also not one that you need to spend a lot of money on. For most people, the router given to you by your provider will be good enough. But for the more tech-savvy who want something a little more high-tech, we’ve got a guide about buying your own.

No matter where your router is from, you’ll need to make sure to secure it. You should always change your admin password and possibly the network name if you can. You can also check whether anyone unknown has been connecting to your Wi-Fi. Also think about using a guest network for either guests or any other tech that connects to your Wi-Fi.

Keeping our router in top condition is important. So also be prepared to contact your provider if you need a new a router or if you need any help.

Meet the author:

Contributor

Matt has been working with Broadband Genie since 2009. A lifelong tech enthusiast, he has 20 years of experience writing about technology for print and online.


Specialist subject: The technicalities of broadband

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