Modems versus Routers

I have to admit that today’s blog is the result of one of my minor pet peeves – I find myself wincing a bit whenever I hear somebody interchange the words modem and router. That’s easy enough to do since today there are a lot of devices in the world that include both a modem and a router. But for somebody who’s been around since the birth of broadband, there is a big distinction. Today’s blog is also a bit nostalgic as I recalled the many kinds of broadband I’ve used during my life.

Modems. A modem is a device that connects a user to an ISP. Before there were ISPs, a modem made a data connection between two points. Modems are specific to the technology being used to make the connection.

In the picture accompanying this blog is an acoustic coupler, which is a modem that makes a data connection using the acoustic signals from an analog telephone. I used a 300 baud modem (which communicated at 300 bps – bits per second) around 1980 at Southwestern Bell when programming in basic. The modem allowed me to connect my telephone to a company mainframe modem and ‘type’ directly into programs stored on the mainframe.

Modems grew faster over time and by the 1990s we could communicate with a dial-up ISP. The first such modem I recalled using communicated at 28.8 kbps (28,800 bits per second). The technology was eventually upgraded to 56 kbps.

Around 2000, I upgraded to a 1 Mbps DSL modem from Verizon. This was a device that sat next to an existing telephone jack. If I recall, this first modem used ADSL technology. The type of DSL matters, because a customer upgrading to a different variety of DSL, such as VDSL2, has to swap to the appropriate modem.

In 2006 I was lucky enough to live in a neighborhood that was getting Verizon FiOS on fiber and I upgraded to 30 Mbps service. The modem for fiber is called an ONT (Optical Network Terminal) and was attached to the outside of my house. Verizon at the time was using BPON technology. A customer would have to swap ONTs to upgrade to newer fiber technologies like GPON.

Today I use broadband from Charter, delivered over a hybrid coaxial network. Cable modems use the DOCSIS standards developed by CableLabs. I have a 135 Mbps connection that is delivered using a DOCSIS 3.0 modem. If I want to upgrade to faster broadband, I’d have to swap to a DOCSIS 3.1 modem – the newest technology on the Charter network.

Routers. A router allows a broadband connection to be split to connect to multiple devices. Modern routers also contain other functions such as the ability to create a firewall or the ability to create a VPN connection.

The most common kind of router in homes is a WiFi router that can connect multiple devices to a single broadband connection. My first WiFi router came with my Verizon FiOS service. It was a single WiFi device intended to serve the whole home. Unfortunately, my house at the time was built in the 1940s and had plaster walls with metal lathing, which created a complete barrier to WiFi signals. Soon after I figured out the limitations on the WiFi I bought my first Ethernet router and used it to string broadband connections using cat 5 cables to other parts of the house. It’s probably good that I was single at the time because I had wires running all over the house!

Today it’s common for an ISP to combine the modem (which talks to the ISP network) and the router (which talks to the devices in the home) into a single device. I’ve always advised clients to not combine the modem and the WiFi router because if you want to upgrade only one of those two functions you have to replace the device. With separate devices, an ISP can upgrade just one function. That’s going to become an issue soon for many ISPs when customers start asking the ISPs to provide WiFi 6 modems.

Some ISPs go beyond a simple modem and router. For example, most Comcast broadband service to single-family homes provide a WiFi router for the home and a second WiFi router that broadcasts to nearby customers outside the home. These dual routers allow Comcast to claim to have millions of public WiFi hotspots.  Many of my clients are now installing networked router systems for customers where multiple routers share the same network. These network systems can provide strong WiFi throughout a home, with the advantage that the same passwords are usable at each router.

Comcast and Real Competition

comcast-truck-cmcsa-cmcsk_largeIt’s really interesting to see how Comcast is reacting to Google Fiber in Atlanta. The company has had competition from fiber in the past in the form of Verizon FiOS. But the footprint for that competition hasn’t changed for years. Comcast and Verizon have competed with very similar data speeds and there was not a lot to distinguish one from the other from a product standpoint. Each company has bested the other in some markets, although Verizon seems to have gotten the upper hand in more places.

But now Comcast is facing Google Fiber for the first time and their reaction is interesting. From what I can see they are doing the following:

  • Comcast is offering a gigabit of speed for $70 per month. But it comes with a very ugly 3-year contract. For those that don’t take the 3-year contract the price will be $139.95 per month, plus Comcast will impose a 3 gigabit monthly data cap that could add up to $35 per month to anybody that actually uses the data.
  • Comcast is using negative advertising against Google’s WiFi router and says that Google’s Wifi’s speeds are 30 Mbps while their own is 725 Mbps.
  • And Comcast is widely distributing flyers that tell people in Atlanta not to fall for the Google hype.

So how do these claims stack up and will they be effective?

I think Comcast’s speed comparison is quite silly and that the public will see through it. The general public has been trained for a decade that fiber is better. Not that upload speeds matter to most people, but Google’s speeds are symmetrical while Comcast will have a relatively slow, perhaps 35 Mbps upload. On a fiber network it’s not too hard to engineer to deliver a true gigabit download almost all of the time. But Comcast is going to have the same issues it’s always had with its HFC network. If it sells too many gigabit customers, then its nodes will slow down for everybody on the node. I don’t believe that there are many homes today that really need a gigabit, but once Google is up and running it ought to win the speed test battle in the market.

There is some truth to Comcast’s claim about WiFi, although their numbers are quite skewed. For some reason Google Fiber is still using an 802.11n WiFi router. At best their WiFi routers are going to deliver about 300 Mbps – but in Kansas City the Google routers are reported on consumer websites to deliver about 80 Mbps on average. Comcast is offering 802.11ac routers, and while they are theoretically capable of the speeds they tout, in real life use they deliver between 200 Mbps and 300 Mbps.

The fact is that both companies (and most ISPs) are doing a very poor job with WiFi. Almost all of them offer a one-WiFi router solution which is not acceptable in today’s big bandwidth homes. I have a Comcast WiFi router and it delivers really low speeds to our offices which are opposite ends of the house from the central router. Until a carrier is willing to cross the threshold and install a WiFi network with multiple linked WiFi routers in a home, then all of their solutions are going to be poor in real life practice.

It appears that Comcast is relying on negative advertising against Google, and I seriously doubt this is going to work. Comcast has one of the most hated customer service experiences in the country and Google has been touted – so far – for offering outstanding customer service. It seems like a bad tactic to advertise negatively about somebody that will have a better network product and a better customer experience.

I think Comcast is really missing the point. It seems like they are spending their energy advertising against Google’s gigabit product. But Google announced that it is entering Atlanta with two data products – the gigabit at $70 and a 100 Mbps product at $50. My bet is that the slower product is likely to most cut into Comcast’s penetration rate unless they decide to scrap the 300 gigabit month data cap. Where Comcast says that only a small percentage of customers use more data than that per month, my clients tell me otherwise. Once any customer has been charged extra for a data cap overage on Comcast they most likely will change to Google and they are likely to never come back.