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What's the difference between a wireless access point and router?

Is there a difference between a wireless access point vs. a router? Yes -- while the two wireless devices are related, they meet different needs in a Wi-Fi network.

Significant differences exist between a wireless access point vs. a wireless router. While both support Wi-Fi network connectivity and may perform similar roles, the two devices are more like cousins than twins.

For a new Wi-Fi architecture, the choice between a wireless AP and router will depend on key factors, like the physical size of the network, the needs of the organization and the total number of Wi-Fi users. In general, multiple APs can better meet the demands of large organizations and enterprises.

On the other hand, wireless routers often make more sense for small businesses and residential homes, as they package the functionality of two wireless devices -- a stand-alone AP and an Ethernet router -- in a single physical appliance. It's worth noting we can consider a wireless router an AP, but an AP can never be a router.

Keep reading to learn more about the differences between a wireless access point and router and how to choose between the two, depending on your individual network's needs.

What is a wireless AP?

A stand-alone wireless AP is a physical appliance that adds Wi-Fi capability to an existing wired network by bridging traffic from a group of wireless workstations onto an adjacent, wired LAN. Conceptually, an AP is like an Ethernet hub, but instead of relaying LAN frames only to other 802.3 stations, an AP relays 802.11 frames to all other 802.11 or 802.3 stations in the same subnet.

The vast majority of enterprises and other organizations require the use of more than one AP. Multiple APs spread out over a network enable the Wi-Fi to keep up with demand across a large physical space and a significant number of end-user devices, as each additional AP offers another location where users can connect -- thus expanding network coverage and availability.

In such an environment, the group of APs works with a separate Ethernet router -- in this case, not a wireless router -- that acts as a gateway. The router sends data back and forth between two or more packet-switched computer networks, such as a LAN and the internet, while the APs connect end-user devices to the LAN.

wireless AP vs. wireless router
In the wireless network, access points and routers play distinct but related roles.

What is a wireless router?

A wireless router is a two-in-one appliance. It combines the functionality of a wireless AP -- connecting a group of wireless stations to an adjacent wired network -- with the capabilities of an Ethernet router, which forwards IP packets between the wireless subnet and any other subnet. In other words, it can both connect end-user clients to the LAN and act as the gateway between the LAN and internet.

Wireless routers also have basic firewall functionality, using Network Address Translation to share one internet address across several wireless stations. Most wireless routers also include a four-port Ethernet switch, so you can connect a few wired personal computers to your LAN via Ethernet cable and let them share internet access, too. Most wireless routers combine the functionality of a wireless AP, an Ethernet router, a basic firewall and a small Ethernet switch.

While a wireless router can be considered a wireless AP -- in the sense that it contains AP capabilities -- a wireless AP cannot be a wireless router. That's why an environment with multiple stand-alone APs also needs a separate router to act as the gateway between the LAN and the internet.

Wireless access point vs. wireless router -- which should you use?

Typically, wireless routers serve residential homes and small organizations, where a single device that combines AP and routing functionality can readily meet the relatively modest user demand. A wireless router can't efficiently scale to reflect escalating network needs, however, making it ill-suited for wireless LANs (WLANs) that anticipate significant growth.

Instead, wireless APs are used in larger businesses and venues, which require many APs to provide service -- for example, to cover an extensive physical area or to support thousands of users. As demand grows, network managers can add additional APs, resulting in more scalable designs than wireless routers would enable.

In larger WLANs, it usually makes sense to have several APs feeding into a single, separate router. Wireless stations can then be treated as one large subnet, which is helpful when a user is roaming from one AP to another. Another benefit of this model is wireless access controls can be concentrated at one router instead of spread across several independent routers, enabling more efficient and effective network management.

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This was last published in October 2019

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