What Is a Router? Router Definition and Functions

Wired router on desk

Internet access is key to almost everything now. Routers are an essential part of Internet access. Though they don't connect directly to the Internet, routers are important in getting a widespread Internet connection across multiple devices. In this article, learn what a router is by definition, how they operate, the kinds of network routers available, and more.

What is a router?

A router, by definition, is a device that sends and receives data across computer networks. Specifically, it works across local area networks (LANs), connecting devices within a local space together to communicate with one another. All routers have a MAC address and an IP address.

What does a router do?

Routers are essential to network connections for anyone who wants to go online. They connect computer networks to one another, allowing communication and data packet sharing. Furthermore, they connect the modem to other devices in your home or local network, which allows these devices to communicate between each other and with the Internet on a WiFi network.

For local area networks (LANs) routers also assign IP addresses, acting as the Internet service provider (ISP) would for wide area networks. Routers give out these private IPs to devices on the LAN to prevent IP address conflict and allow smooth communication between devices.

What are the different types of routers?

There are multiple kinds of routers used in various ways to distribute WiFi and share connections between devices. There are five main types on the market today: wired routers, wireless routers, core routers, edge routers, and virtual routers.

Wired routers

As the name implies, wired routers by definition connect to devices via a cable plugged into the router's ports, specifically the LAN Ethernet ports. A wired router connects directly to each device and then to the modem, which allows these devices to access the Internet. They typically have multiple LAN Ethernet ports in the back, which lets several devices connect simultaneously.

Wireless router

Wireless routers

If you think of WiFi when you think of a router, you're thinking of wireless routers, or WiFi routers. But what exactly is a wireless router? They use WiFi connections to communicate between the Internet service provider and the router and connect all wireless devices on the network via wireless frequency. This router, like the wired router, allows for multiple devices to connect at once, except it uses a digital password instead of a physical wired connection.

Though several different kinds of routers exist, almost all are either wired or wireless.

Edge routers

Edge routers are located at the boundary, or edge, of a network that you have control over to connect it to a network that you don't. In many cases, it connects a local area network - like your home network - to a wide area network, like the Internet. They distribute packets and control communication across several networks at once. Edge routers can be either wired or wireless.

Core routers

Whereas edge routers navigate communication between multiple networks, core routers work within only one network. However, that network is a wide area network and a core network like the Internet. They don't operate within smaller local area networks.

Core routers are fast and capable, forwarding IP packets across a network to increase speeds and routing capabilities. They can also be either wired or wireless.

Virtual routers

Virtual routers are software routers that allow a computer or machine to perform the same role as a hardware router. They allow control over multiple networks on one router interface as opposed to a physical router, which only supports one network per router interface.

Router working with Wifi

They work in LANs, performing the same packet routing and network connection as a standard router would. Unlike most other types of routers, virtual routers are neither wired nor wireless. They aren't physical devices with wiring capabilities.

Do I need a router for WiFi?

Despite popular belief, these two are not the same. Therefore, users may ask - how does a router work with WiFi?

Though routers are essential if you want to share a WiFi connection with more than one WiFi device or use any device wirelessly, you technically don't need one for WiFi. It's the modem that provides the Internet connection. If you have one device that needs to access the Internet, you can use an Ethernet cable to plug into the modem only and still be able to access what you need.

However, especially in today's day and age, most people find a router necessary for their household, especially if they have a large home. It allows functioning WiFi systems and lets multiple devices communicate with each other as well as with the Internet through the modem connection.

Routers and modems

Routers and modems work together to establish the best service with the fastest speeds possible. They are necessary to manage local area networks. But without modems, access to the Internet is impossible; you need to connect a router to a modem in order to get Internet access.

Many companies sell router-modem combination units, which makes figuring out device connections easier if you lack technical knowledge. However, these units typically don't provide quite the same signal and connection strength as separate modem and router units do when connected. If you get your WiFi from an ISP, the unit or units they send you will suffice for your connection, but some users prefer to purchase their own routers or modems for superior service.

What is my router's IP address?

To configure your router or its settings, you need your router's IP address. Though this varies by machine, you can easily find the IP address by locating your default gateway using the ipconfig command or checking your device's settings, depending on the machine. Once you learn how to find your default gateway address, you'll know the IP. In many cases, your router's IP address is also what your public IP address is, though you can also change your router's IP address using some methods. Once you have your public IP, use it to log on to your router and change your password or username, change your SSID, and more.

Frequently asked questions

Do you need a router and a modem?

You need a router and a modem if you want to connect multiple devices to the Internet at the same time or if you want to connect any device wirelessly. Routers can't connect on their own, but modems can connect a single device with a wired connection to the Internet.

What is WPS on a router?

WPS stands for WiFi Protected Setup. It's a feature on many routers that makes it easy to connect devices to your router securely. If you see a WPS button on the back of your router, you can press it to connect a device rather than entering your long WiFi password. Press the button and it will seek out compatible devices and connect automatically, much like how a Bluetooth connection works.

What is a mesh router?

A mesh router is part of a mesh network. It links several access points across a space to improve a WiFi connection. A single router only reaches so far. But mesh routers and mesh networks have a stronger connection across a greater distance.

What is a router used for?

A router is used to manage traffic across a network via data packet transfer. They also allow more than one device to access the Internet at once on the same network. Furthermore, they assign IP addresses, like an ISP, to devices on a LAN.

Are routers wired or wireless?

Both wired and wireless routers exist. Which you use depends on your network needs.