What is a broadband router?

A broadband router is a device which combines a modem for accessing the internet, with networking for sharing the connection and communicating between devices within your home.

Back in the dial-up days most home users would have a single modem connected to one computer, and sharing the internet was a fiddly process. Now a broadband router provides a hassle free method of getting online anywhere in the home without requiring you to power up a computer and manually dial the ISP (though you do miss out on that bleepy-scratchy noise of a modem negotiating a connection).

Today’s routers also offer a wealth of home networking features. On the most basic level you can easily share internet access via wired or wireless connectivity but it also allows you to - among many other things - share files between systems, stream media around the home and implement security measures to protect your network.

Almost all home broadband offers now include a router as part of the deal, very often for free, so there’s no need to purchase anything before signing up for a new package.

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 (Super Hub).

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

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

How does a router or hub work?

To access the internet broadband routers have a modem which connects to the phone or cable line and provides internet service. It also has the functionality of a network device, and typically offers four wired Local Area Network (LAN) ports along with wireless access, plus firewall for security. By default anything connected to either LAN or Wi-Fi will gain access to the wider internet.

But while the modem and the network hardware are working together in the router to provide all this functionality, the internal network will continue to work if you disconnect the internet link, just without external communication.

The modem and router can also be separate devices. This is less common in the UK, but not an unfamiliar setup for fibre optic broadband and older Virgin setups. It is possible to have a separate DSL modem and router, though unless there are very specific reasons for this an all-in-one broadband router is the best solution for most people.

Mobile broadband routers are also available. Usually if we say ‘3G router’ or ‘4G router’ it’s used to refer to a Wi-Fi dongle (also sometimes called a MiFi) which provides mobile internet access and shares the connection over wireless. However, there are mobile broadband routers which resemble home broadband hardware, with a network switch for wired connections and wireless support. But rather than connecting to a phone line they have either a SIM card slot or a USB port for mobile broadband dongles. These remain relatively uncommon and expensive but may become popular if 4G catches on as an alternative for home broadband.

How do I setup and manage my home broadband router?

All routers offer some level of control which allows you to change settings such as the Wi-Fi password, configure security options, or delve into more advanced networking.

The exact method of accessing a router will vary between model and make, but in general you need to use a web browser to access the router’s IP address - for example http://192.168.0.1 - then enter a username and password to login. The precise login details for your router will be printed on a label on the router itself or provided with the bundled documentation.

Some ISPs supply software with their router to simplify this step but this often provides only a basic selection of settings, with more advanced features hidden.

It’s recommended that when setting up a new router for the first time you change the default admin login password to prevent casual unauthorised access. If you have any problems with the router configuration it can always be reset to factory default using the reset switch. For further help with configuring your router, read our guide to router security.

Which router is best? Should I upgrade my router?

On the most basic level a router should provide an internet connection and share that connection with other computers and devices in your home, while offering a basic level of security. This is all many home users will ever need so the free router supplied with your broadband deal should be sufficient.

But you might want to upgrade if:

  • the Wi-Fi signal is weak

Unfortunately some routers just don’t have very good Wi-Fi capabilities, putting out a weak signal that doesn’t make it to all corners of your home. Placing the router in a sensible location (central in your home, off the floor, away from other electronic devices and not right next to a wall) can help, but you may instead want to purchase a more advanced router with multiple external antennas, or removable antenna that can be replaced to improve the signal.

  • you need advanced networking features

Any home broadband router will allow you to share files and connect to systems over the LAN, which is great for streaming media or playing network games, but they can lack more advanced functions. If you’ve got more demanding needs for your home network it might be necessary to upgrade the router to gain access to essential extras.

  • there’s a security flaw

If a router has an inherent security flaw it could open up your home network to external attack. A firmware update might fix this, but if it’s an older model or a fix has never been issued it might be time to replace the router.

As for what router is best...there are thousands of models out there so you’ll need to search for something which suits your needs. 

Prices vary from around £30 to several hundred or more, but there should be no need to spend that much. In general a router in the £50-£150 price range will offer a wealth of features, including excellent Wi-Fi capabilities supporting the latest standards.

Just remember to check that it will actually work with your ISP. In some cases you might need a username/password to connect to the internet, or configure it in a particular way, but it’s not always possible to easily replace the ISP-supplied router.

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