This is a not uncommon home networking question. Often it is the case we have an old Wi-Fi booster/extender/repeater lying around, and want to know if it can be used as a router in it’s own right. Can we just plug an extender into the phone line and use it as we would use a router? Are the two products interchangeable in this regard?
Here is a summary answer:
A Wi-Fi extender cannot be used as a router, since it can only be used to transfer and forward data within a single local network, not between networks. Extenders also cannot do other things that a router must do, like assign IP addresses and implement NAT and firewall filtering.
Therefore to access the internet from home on a fixed line connection, you will always need a either a router-modem combo or separate router and separate modem connected to the phone line/master socket. There’s no other way around this and you unfortunately can’t use a Wi-Fi extender to replace the job of either a modem or router.
Let’s look at some of the key differences between routers and Wi-Fi repeaters/extenders to understand why.
Some Key Differences Between Extenders & Routers
Here are some quick key differentiators between Wi-Fi extenders and routers that are useful in the context of this question:
Scope of Function – A Wi-Fi router has the ability to bridge different networks, facilitating data transfer between different local area networks. For example, when you are Skyping with someone, data is being sent from their local network (their home) to your local network (your home), and the router is helping facilitate this transfer. Wi-Fi extenders cannot do this; they can only facilitate data transfer within a single local area network (eg. your home). They can improve coverage within a local network but can’t facilitate transfer between different networks like a router can.
Assigning IP Addresses – This is another key function that a router must have – the ability to efficiently manage home networks, not just forward data packets. Wi-Fi routers use the DHCP Protocol to dynamically assign IPs or unique identifiers to all devices on a network, so it knows what data to send to which devices to make sure users get what they need. Wi-Fi extenders don’t have this capability; they can only forward data packets within a network and can’t assign IP addresses. So they are useless for actually managing data transfer on home networks with multiple devices connecting; a router is needed for this.
Other Functions – Wi-Fi routers also perform other essential functions on a home network that a Wi-Fi extender can’t. One of these is Network Address Translation or NAT, which allows for the transfer of public IP addresses into private ones (see our article here for a full explanation of how NAT works). Another is to implement firewall filtering to protect devices and mitigate the risk of unsafe data (viruses etc) coming from the internet. An extender can’t do any of these things, therefore again can’t be used to replace a router.
Routers are complex devices that do a lot more than extenders do
Wi-Fi Repeaters Cannot Be Used As Routers
These key differentiators are used to arrive at the general answer – Wi-Fi extenders/repeaters cannot be used as routers on a home network, because they don’t have the required functionality that a router must have to be used to set up, manage and maintain home networks.
Wi-Fi repeaters can only forward data packets within a network with the assumption that all of this foundational stuff (all devices having correct IP addresses, NAT and firewall filtering) is already handled by the router.
Extenders cannot be used to replace the function of the router in doing this because they don’t have this capability; they merely complement the router by improving wireless coverage by catching and amplifying the existing signal from the router to spread it over a larger area.
What You Need To Get Online In A Home
Let’s also give a brief overview of what is required to effectively set up any home network.
To get online in the home with a fixed line internet connection, you need:
- A fully installed and activated internet service from an internet provider (ISP), usually fed in through the phone line or some kind of master socket.
- Either a combined (all-in-one) router-modem (common now) OR a separate modem and separate router connected together (common on older installations). The modem is connected to the phone line, and the router is then connected to the modem, and your devices connect to the router.
- An extender unfortunately cannot be used to replace the function of the router, since it can’t do the things a router needs to do. You need a router – see here for links to some good models.
Caveat – It is theoretically possible to get online with just a modem, since they do have a single ethernet port on the back which you can plug a device into. However, this is literally all you can do – plug that one device in. There’s no Wi-Fi or other ports when using just the modem, which is precisely why routers exist – to provide more connectivity options by having more LAN ports plus wireless networks. See our article which goes into this.
If you don’t have a fixed line internet service installed, there are of course other ways to get online, such as through your phone network or using local Wi-Fi Hotspots. See the later section of this article which covers some of these alternative options.
However, in terms of fixed line home internet, you always need a modem, router and activated internet service to get online.
Wi-Fi Repeaters Can Be Used As Access Points Within A Network
We’ve gone in detail into what an extender can’t be used for, but let’s quickly go over what it can be used for; what the intended purpose of extenders is.
Wi-Fi Repeaters/Extenders are meant simply to spread wireless coverage over a larger area in the home. They capture and boost the existing signal from the router and can provide a new access point within the home. In other words, if the extender is closer to you and provides a stronger signal, you connect to the extender instead of the router and draw off that as a better access point instead.
However, the subtlety here is that the extender is still only really drawing off the main router and forwarding data packets. It needs the router to operate and cannot be used to replace the router. It just potentially allows for more efficient data transfer within a local network.
Here are some other key things to bear in mind with Wi-Fi extenders:
- They tend to work better over short to medium distance. If you start adding more distance and obstacles, performance can be hit and miss.
- They are best installed in direct line of sight of the router, so they can draw off the signal better.
- They can be piggy-backed or daisy chained – in other words you can connect one extenders to another in a chain – but it is not the most effective way of using them, and speeds drop considerably with each chain you add. If you want to use more than one, you are best installing them either side of the router to cover each side of the home, with each extender it’s own unique access point, and both connecting to the central router, not to each other.
- Some extenders also do have an ethernet port on them to plug in a device, but again they are still only drawing off the main router and can’t be used as a router in their own right.
- See the good short video below for a demonstration of how best to use extenders.
- See also our article on whether range extenders are any good for a full pro/con overview of them.