Networking equipment can be decently confusing to understand unless you are a network genius. To the everyday Average Joe with a love of technology, like myself, you may not know the ins and outs of the equipment used in networking to be connected to the internet. Check out this guide to learn all about the terms used with computer networking, and learn which is which. More importantly, check out this article to learn how to get the fastest internet you can and what factors can affect your internet speeds.
Modem vs Router vs Switch
All of these devices connect your computer and devices to the internet in one way or another. The actual pieces of equipment look very similar but do different things and have different features. Remember, these connections to the internet can be through either an Ethernet cord or through Wireless Internet, or WiFi.
The modem is what gives you capability to have internet. Modems are often provided by your internet service provider (or ISP for short), but they can also be purchased in stores or online. A modem basically receives and then transmits data through a phone line. It can connect to a computer directly, though most often it is then connected to a router. The telephone line connects to the modem, which takes that data and transmits it to the router, or the computer. From there the router can connect to different devices and computers. The modem can only be connected to one device at a time; a router or a computer.
A router connects to the modem and provides internet to any devices connected to it. Unlike a modem, the router can be connected to a bunch of different devices via an Ethernet cord or through wireless internet, or WiFi. Think of the router as an internet distribution center. Internet is delivered through the modem and the router distributes it through Ethernet or WiFi. Routers can connect multiple computers, video game consoles like PlayStation or Xbox, and then WiFi devices to the internet all at once.
This final piece of equipment in this section is a network switch. Basically a network switch is a hub that connects computers to the same network and enables them to communicate with each other. Network switches are typically used by businesses and schools who have quite a few computers to tie together. They use MAC addresses to process data, and forward that data to computers.
Router vs Network Switch
While these two pieces sound somewhat similar, they have very different tasks. A router can join multiple networks (LAN and WAN- Wide area network) while switches are only capable of LAN (local area network). Switches cannot join many networks, only LAN whereas routers can join many. A switch also needs for one single computer to be the “main” computer for the internet, whereas a router allows any and all computers connect to the internet.
Since switches are more of an additional hub there is no real speed difference with a network switch. The speed will be the same as the router, so you do not have to worry about your internet speed slowing down if you use a switch.
Modem and Router Speeds
So the next thing to look at is speed. Speed is determined by 1) the amount of speed you pay for by your ISP, 2) the speed your modem is capable of, and 3) the speed your router is capable of. There are other factors, but these are the three primary ones. Let’s address these individually:
1. Speed by your ISP
As you would hopefully know, you pay for internet through your ISP, and you choose the speed you want. Providers might provide different speed options that you can choose from, some speeds up to 1 GB, which is pretty dang fast. Speeds will vary by your provider and by your region. Another factor with speed is whether or not you have satellite internet versus cable internet. Satellite internet is considerably slower than cable internet just because it isn’t a hard connection, it literally uses a dish to receive internet, which slows down your speeds.
2. Speed your modem can handle
You will need to have a modem that can process the speed that you pay for. Typically your ISP will provide you with a modem you can rent from them, but you can also buy your own modem and use that. Modem speeds vary, so if you buy your own modem you need to look out for a modem that can handle your internet speed. If you get a modem that cannot handle your speed then you’re paying extra for faster internet because your modem cannot process the speed.
3. Speed your router can handle
Just the same as having a modem that can handle high speeds, it is also integral that your router can handle fast speeds. This is important not just for wired connections, but also for WiFi. The fastest connection is to do a wired connection from your router to your computer, video game consoles, basically anything that can connect to the internet via an Ethernet cord. Obviously there are devices that cannot connect via Ethernet, like phones, tablets, and some laptops.
Other Factors That Affect Your Internet Speeds
There are other factors that will affect your internet speed. Check out these different factors:
DSL vs Cable Internet
DSL and cable internet are two options you may have top get internet. DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Line and has been around for a while. It uses telephone lines, but luckily does not hold up phone lines, so you don’t have to say “get off the internet I need to use the phone” or vice versa. Cable internet goes through a TV cable and goes through a modem. Cable internet can be faster, or may even be the same speed as DSL internet, but cable internet has better bandwidth (meaning it can be considerably faster than DSL).
Cable internet is the most popular internet option there is. Many TV companies offer cable internet options, so you can contact your TV provider about what they might offer. Some companies offer discounts if you bundle TV services with internet, so it’s worth it to look into your options.
Cat6 vs Cat6a
Now lets take a look at Ethernet cords. These guys have their own affect on speed of your internet. The two newest Ethernet cords are called Cat6 and Cat6a cords. These have been designed to be as fast as possible, so the cables in both Cat6 and Cat6a were wired just a little differently than their predecessors to get the best speeds out of them. Cat6a is the newest of the two cables, and their wiring is a little more tightly wound than regular Cat6 because it increases it’s speed reliability.
With both of these cable types the length of them does affect their speed capability. The length of the cable is determined by the amount of speed you have from your ISP. My best advice is to either look up your speed amount and cable length or talk to someone at your ISP to see what advice they give you.
Location of Router
This only applies towards WiFi. Your WiFi should ideally be in the middle of your home where every room has easy access to it. Walls, TV’s, and even pipes in the walls can slow down WiFi speeds. Routers have different sized radius’ so you will need to find a router that can cover your entire house. If you have a two story home you may actually need to mount the router on the ceiling on the first floor so there is as little interference as possible for the second floor.
Another thing you can do is actually connect a router to another router. You can string an Ethernet cable and connect it to another router to be able to connect other devices farther away to the internet using Ethernet instead of WiFi. You can also use another router to boost your WiFi.
Another thing to remember is that the more items using the internet the slower your speed will be (unless you have fiber optic internet).
Fiber Optic Internet
Fiber optic internet is the fastest internet available. Unfortunately a very small percentage of the United States has access to fiber optic internet… so far. Fiber optic internet is super fast and is probably the future of the internet so it is only a matter of time before it is spread across America and everyone has access to it. Unfortunately it may take a while because fiber optic wires have to be spread across areas instead of simply tying into the old wires. Laying the fiber optic wires is also somewhat expensive, so it will come to more popular locations first. So far the two companies that have fiber optic internet are Google Fiber and Verizon FiOS. I actually had FiOS in Southern California and it was exceptionally fast and you could very easily do multiple things at once and it never had an issue.