In every internet-connected home, there’s a small and often unappreciated plastic box that serves as the gateway to the digital world.
Comic book fans might like to think of it as an electronic Heimdall, standing guard against unauthorised invaders while letting legitimate traffic in and out.
However, until it stops working, we rarely pay attention to our broadband routers. Indeed, their operation can seem mysterious (and even intimidating) to less tech-minded consumers.
So how do these invaluable yet unappreciated devices work? Are there significant differences between them? And what can you do to improve your router’s performance?
How do broadband routers work?
A telephone line or fibre optic cable will extend into your property from the street outside, linked to the wider telecommunications network.
Data is sent and received from huge server machines in data centres in response to everything we do online – opening apps, loading webpages, playing online games, and so forth.
As data reaches our homes, it needs a device capable of pulling it out of the connection cable and distributing it to specific devices.
Sitting at the end of each domestic connection, broadband routers tackle this challenge in two ways:
Wirelessly. Data is relayed across the 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi frequencies, to domestic devices which are also capable of receiving and distributing data wirelessly.
Hardwired. Physical cables provide a faster and more stable connection from the router to larger appliances with an Ethernet socket, like desktop computers and smart TVs.
Ethernet cables are usually thick and brightly coloured, with chunky square plugs at both ends.
By hardwiring a device to your broadband router, you eliminate wireless interference from other devices using the 2.4GHz spectrum – car alarms, baby monitors, and so forth.
This is a far more congested frequency than 5GHz, and many issues with internet connectivity relate to bandwidth congestion, or interference from microwaves, kettles, etc.
Indeed, any call to your ISP’s technical support will start with a request for a device to be hardwired, since so many connectivity issues relate to WiFi rather than the connection itself.
Does it matter whose router I use?
When you sign up to a new ISP, they’ll generally post out a broadband router with their logo on. However, this isn’t the only device capable of servicing your internet connection.
Most broadband routers do a similar job of receiving, interpreting and distributing digital data around the home. Indeed, some do it better than others.
The routers your ISP supplies are generally built to a budget, and often differ only in terms of the ISP sticker applied to their plastic casings.
They tend to have either internal aerials or two modest external aerials, where third-party routers might have as many as eight tall antennae.
These provide far better whole-home coverage, eliminating the need to have mesh extenders or satellite WiFi units positioned around the house.
Some routers are faster at processing data than others, while a few have genuine aesthetic merit and make an attractive addition to a hall console table or bookcase.
(Always try to position a broadband router centrally in the home, as its coverage is spherical. The top of the stairs is a great location, but try not to hide it in signal-blocking cupboards).
Some full fibre providers like Virgin Media have routers which are uniquely compatible with the connections running into a property, but even here, you can plug their router into another one.
This leaves the full fibre company’s router doing the interpreting, before a second router handles distribution around the home over a wider area, more quickly, etc.
If you’re needing inspiration about which broadband router to choose, check out our review of six of the best products on today’s market.
What can go wrong with a router?
Although they’re built for reliability and rarely fail altogether, broadband routers periodically experience technical issues:
The latter problem is increasingly being solved with WiFi boosters or satellite units, which amplify a main router’s signal across a wider area.
Avoid systems that require you to connect to either the main router or the booster. Portable devices should seamlessly switch between them as signal strengths ebb and flow.
Other issues may manifest as slower data throughput than your line could otherwise support (or your ISP promised), weak signal strength, periodic disconnections or random outages.
Before ringing your ISP to complain, check the cables are all tightly connected. Power down and reboot the router, and see if hardwired connections are still working.
Use a smartphone to determine whether your broadband router is distributing data. If it is, conduct a speed test using one of the many free websites, and report your findings to the ISP.
Ways to improve the performance of broadband routers
It’s important to note that broadband routers are often capable of distributing data far more quickly than the connection into the home will allow.
As our guide to gigabit broadband explains, while some UK homes enjoy 1Gbps connection speeds, others have ADSL connections of just 10Mbps carried via phone lines.
Even the most efficient router can’t accelerate an ADSL connection. The speed of connections available in your postcode is far more important than which router you’re using.
However, hardwiring devices via Ethernet does optimise whatever speeds are achievable, as does positioning key wireless devices as close to the router as possible (and vice versa).
If you can’t physically connect a regularly-used device, powerline adaptors get close to hardwired speeds by piping data along electrical circuits around the home.
Wireless devices may be drawing down lots of data even on standby. In particular, considering turning off TV set top boxes, smart speakers and WiFi heating hubs when not in use.
Give your router a break every now and again, allowing it to install updates and cool down. Overnight is a good opportunity to do this, while the connection isn’t being used.
Conducting system updates and synchronising cloud storage platforms should also be done overnight, as discussed in this feature on network congestion.