Learn what WiFi equipment acronyms and terms really mean — and why they matter — in our new series, “WiFi 101”
When the WiFi goes down and you bite the bullet to call your internet service provider (ISP) — or frantically Google “fix WiFi” over LTE on your smartphone — you’ll likely be directed to restart your router, the age old solution for any connection problem. In these situations, many of us turn to the nest of wires and boxes with blinking lights and wonder, “But which one is the router?”
We’ve all been there. So, we’re here to help you get to know your WiFi hardware — and how it works behind the scenes to make sure your Netflix connection never fails.
What is a router?
What it does: Allows multiple devices to join the same the same network
Think back to our first WiFi 101 lesson: everyone in a household or office using the WiFi are all part of one WLAN, or wireless local area network. Think of the router as the host of this WLAN party — similar to how a host gives out nametags to party guests. Since all devices share the same external IP address, which is assigned by your ISP, the router assigns local IP addresses to every device in the WLAN so they can differentiate each other within the network. Today, each individual device connects to the router wirelessly to join the network. But pre-WiFi, routers had multiple ethernet ports to physically connect a computer or other device.
What is a modem?
What it does: translates broadband Internet into a language that computers understand (and vice versa)
A modem connects your router (and therefore all of the devices in the WLAN) to the ISP via a physical wire. ISPs typically provide either cable or DSL internet service, which connects your home to the internet. Most modems are cable modems, meaning the connection is the same as the connection to a TV or cable box.
Many ISPs provide modem/router combo boxes when they set up your service, often renting them to consumers for a monthly fee. While this may seem like a convenient option, it usually makes more sense to purchase your own modem. Purchasing your own top-of-the-line modem could save you up to $120 a year, and will ensure you’re getting the full speed you’re paying for from your ISP.
What is a WiFi range extender?
What it does: Expands the reach of your WiFi signal
A router can only transmit WiFi signal so far—similar to how sound quality diminishes with distance, WiFi signal strength decreases the farther a device is from your router. Range extenders (also known as WiFi boosters or repeaters) are meant to help extend the range of traditional routers. The problem with range extenders? They rely on one radio to both receive and transmit information. Think of it like a walkie talkie — you can either listen or speak, but not both at once. This effectively cuts bandwidth traveling from your router to your device in half — if you’re lucky. To add to the headache, extenders also create a separate network in your home, so you’re constantly switching back and forth from “The LAN before time” and “The LAN before time EXT.”
eero has multiple radios to transmit and receive data, which means information can make multiple hops to reach its destination. eero creates a single mesh network, so you don’t have to switch between SSIDs as you move throughout your home.
What is an ethernet port? What is an ethernet cable?
What they do: Allow devices to join a network using a wired connection
While WiFi gives you the ability to roam freely about your space, many homes and business still rely on ethernet connections. An ethernet port allows a computer to connect to a network using a wired connection. Ethernet cables plug into the LAN ports on the back of a router or a modem to connect computers, switches, and other networking equipment on the LAN. Ethernet cables have different standards — each cord is labeled according to its category (or “cat” for short). Higher “cat” numbers correlate with higher possible transmission speeds.
What is firmware?
What it is: The software that tells hardware what to do
Software, hardware, firmware. Think of these on a scale of “fluid” to “fixed.” First, software — such as Adobe Illustrator or Google docs — pertains to computer programs that help you communicate with hardware, like a keyboard, TV remote, or router. While software is “virtual” and updated regularly to take advantage of improvements, hardware is the opposite. It’s fixed and it’s physical.
Firmware is an in-between: It’s software that’s specific to a piece of hardware, telling it what to do — sort of like an instruction manual. For example, firmware tells a TV remote how to communicate with the television. In the case of eero, the firmware is responsible for doing all the work to quickly set up a mesh network that brings signal to every room in your home. And, like software, firmware is updatable. Most products require you download updates and install them manually, but with eero they happen automatically, so you’re always up-to-date.
Still curious about the world of WiFi lingo? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any WiFi terms you’d like us to decode and we’ll add them to our next list.