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Router lingo 101: Key home networking terms you need to know

Confused by all the acronyms associated with routers and the internet? We're here to help.

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Ry Crist/CNET

We've come a long way from dial-up modems, where your desktop computer, a phone line and 20 seconds of screeching was essentially all there was to getting online. Internet technology has improved significantly since, but for many of us, connecting to the internet is as blissfully mysterious today as it was back then. 

It's time to take some of the mystery out of your home internet connection and shed light on some of the seemingly complex terms and acronyms. Why? Because, unlike the dial-up days, a simple understanding of routers, modems and your network can make a big difference in your connection quality and security. Let's take a look at the home networking terms worth knowing.

HOME NETWORKING GLOSSARY

802.11

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers maintains a list of industry standards for a broad range of technologies. Internet network connectivity happens to fall in the 802.1 to 802.12 range, with the 802.11 designation pertaining specifically to wireless local area networks. So, 802.11 is basically a set of industry standards for Wi-Fi devices, or routers. 

What does that mean to you? Well, looking at what comes after the "802.11" on a router will show you what category of standards the device falls under. Wi-Fi 5, which was the standard for nearly the last decade and likely the one your current router falls under, is 802.11ac. The newest router standard, known as Wi-Fi 6, is 802.11ax. So, if you're in the market for a new router and want the latest, greatest device, look for models with 802.11ax. 

Access points

While most Wi-Fi extenders connect to the router wirelessly and therefore must be placed in a location where the Wi-Fi signal is already strong, access points are Wi-Fi range extenders that are connected to the router via Ethernet cables that run through your walls or ceiling. The wired connection not only enables you to place Wi-Fi extenders in areas where the router's signal may not sufficiently reach, like on different floors or down in the basement, but it often produces a stronger signal than standard Wi-Fi extenders, too.

DNS

DNS stands for Domain Name System. A domain name represents the Internet Protocol address (more on that later) of a computer, server or website, because typing in "cnet.com" is a lot easier than remembering and entering a long series of numbers, letters and punctuation. The DNS translates what we type into what the server needs to get you there.

DOCSIS

DOCSIS stands for Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications. DOCSIS is most applicable to those who have cable internet. Similar to how 802.11 applies to Wi-Fi standards, DOCSIS applies to cable modem standards. Most homes are equipped with DOCSIS 3.0 devices, which can support download speeds of 1Gbps and upload speeds of 200Mbps. That's as fast or faster than the advertised speeds you'll find from virtually any cable internet provider, but as high-speed internet gets even faster, we may see more use of DOCSIS 3.1, which can support up to 10Gbps down and 1 to 2Gbps up.

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A gateway, like this model from Comcast, is a device that includes both a modem and a router in one.

Comcast

Gateway

This is a modem and router combined into one device. Your "gateway" to the internet. Many providers, including AT&T, Optimum and Xfinity offer a gateway device in place of separate modems and routers. 

IP address

Like the physical address of your home, an IP address identifies the location of a device or server on the internet. The standard for communicating between these internet addresses is called the Internet Protocol, hence the "IP." 

LAN

LAN stands for Local Area Network. When devices in the home, at school or at a work office are connected to the same network, that's a LAN. A WLAN is also a local area network, but wireless. Wi-Fi is a type of WLAN connection.

MAC address

MAC address stands for Media Access Control address. Each NIC (see below) has an identifier. This identifier is the MAC address. 

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A mesh router, like the Arris model seen here, uses multiple devices to spread a stronger signal throughout your entire home.

Ry Crist/CNET

Mesh Wi-Fi

A mesh Wi-Fi system features a router and additional nodes that boost the signal from the router throughout your home. The benefit of a mesh system is that you can walk throughout your home with a wireless device, like your laptop or the new iPhone 13, and your device will automatically connect to the best signal output, whether that be your router or a node. 

Modem

Short for "modulator-demodulator," modems send and receive data via the internet. As CNET Senior Editor Ry Crist explains, "Your modem's job is to act as the translator for your home network." So if you perform an action on the internet, like clicking on a link to a cat video, that data is sent to the modem and translated into data the world wide web understands. The web then sends data back to your modem, which translates it for your home network and there you go, another adorable cat video.

MU-MIMO

MU-MIMO stands for multi-user, multi-input, multi-output. A router with MU-MIMO capabilities, which is the majority of Wi-Fi 5 routers and all Wi-Fi 6 models, divides the Wi-Fi signal into multiple streams, accommodating multiple devices at once and potentially delivering extra bandwidth to any that may need it.

NIC

NIC is short for Network Interface Controller. The NIC is the component in your computer or wireless device that enables it to communicate with a network.

ONT

ONT stands for Optical Network Terminal. Most internet connection types use a modem, including DSL and cable, but fiber-optic internet does not. Instead, fiber internet connections use an Optical Network Terminal, which performs the actions of a modem over a fiber network.

Router

A router is a piece of hardware that communicates with your modem to send and receive data over a wireless network. In short, it's the device that creates the Wi-Fi signal and lets you connect with your modem without wires.

VPN

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. A VPN establishes a private connection over a public network by encrypting your data and hiding your IP address. There are many security advantages to using a VPN, but it may cost you a few extra bucks per month. If you're interested in a VPN, check out CNET's picks for the best VPN service for 2021.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is a type of wireless local area network, specifically one that adheres to IEEE 802.11 standards, but there's no need to define Wi-Fi, right? It's that wireless connection we all know and love. What you may not know, though, is that Wi-Fi is not a separate connection from your home internet, it's just a different (and much more convenient) way to connect to it (without wires, to be exact).

The Wi-Fi standard gets updated with new features and capabilities every decade or so, similar to the way cellular connections have progressed from 3G to 4G and now 5G. With Wi-Fi, the latest version is Wi-Fi 6.

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Wi-Fi extenders connect to your router wirelessly, then rebroadcast the signal out to give your connection some extra oomph.

Ry Crist/CNET

Wi-Fi extender

Even the best Wi-Fi routers can only do so much. That's where Wi-Fi extenders come in. Sometimes also called a Wi-Fi booster or repeater, Wi-Fi extenders increase the range of your Wi-Fi signal coming from the router. These devices often plug directly into an electrical outlet, but since they connect to your router wirelessly, you'll want to plug it in where there's still somewhat of a strong signal, otherwise there won't be much for the device to "extend." 

WPA/WPA2/WPA3

WPA stands for Wi-Fi Protected Access. As the name suggests, WPA is a built-in security protocol designed to prevent someone from hacking your router. WPA2 and WPA3 are updated standards, with WPA3 being the current version.

WPS

WPS stands for Wi-Fi Protected Setup. Let's say you have a guest over and they want to connect to your Wi-Fi, but you're not exactly comfortable sharing the password. WPS allows you to add their device, sometimes even on a separate network, often by simply pushing a button on the router or by entering a unique PIN.

INTERNET ROUTER FAQS

How do I reset my router?

Most routers come equipped with a reset and/or power button. You can press this button to reset your router, but be cautious when doing so. On most devices, holding the button down for too long will reset the router to factory settings, erasing any custom settings and passwords. The quickest, sure-fire way to reset your router or modem is to simply unplug it, wait a few seconds and plug it back in. The device should restart itself.

How often should I reset my router?

There's really no accepted time frame for resetting your router. I reset my router roughly once a month, but the best time to reset your router is when you're having connectivity issues. Consistently slow speeds, a laggy connection or one that goes out entirely are indicators you may need to reset the router. And if you have separate modem and router devices, go ahead and reset the modem while you're at it.

Is it better to use my own internet equipment?

The answer to that comes down to personal preference and possibly a little math. If you opt to use your own router for better performance (shoutout to the awesome gaming routers) then using your own router makes sense. If you want to use your own router to save some money on equipment rental costs, be sure to calculate how long it will take you to get your money back. A good router can easily cost $100 to $200 or more, while the equipment rental cost of most providers falls in the $5-to-$15-per-month range. 

How do I change my Wi-Fi password?

Most routers have an app that allows you to change your Wi-Fi password quickly and easily. If there's no app, there are a number of other ways to change your password, even if you forgot what the current one is.

What is an Ethernet cable?

An Ethernet cable is what we use for wired internet connections. Your modem is connected to the router via an Ethernet cable. Like with routers, modems and other internet technologies, Ethernet cables have various generations. Cat7 and Cat8 are the latest generations of Ethernet cables, but those can be pricey and handle more than the average home needs. Cat5e and Cat6 cables support speeds up to 1Gbps and are a bit more accessible and affordable than Cat7 or Cat8.