What is an ADSL Router? (Easy Explanation)

The whole topic of internet and home networking is full of acronyms and technical terms, of which ADSL is just one of many. But what does ADSL mean, and what exactly is an ADSL router?

ADSL stands for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line and refers to the older style of internet service installation with a separate router and modem. An ADSL router is a standalone wireless router which is connected to a separate ADSL modem, which then connects to your phone line to deliver internet to devices in your home.

In other words an ADSL modem/router setup is what you’ll get on the older, slower speed internet packages, where your modem and router are still separate, as opposed to bundled into one as they often are on newer, faster internet services.

Let’s look in more detail at the term “ADSL”, and ADSL modems and routers, to see how it all fits together.

What Does ADSL Mean?

ADSL or Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line simply refers to an older style of internet service that is provided to the end user through existing copper telephone wires, and where the router is usually separate from the modem. These services are usually lower to medium speed packages, though they can sometimes deliver high speed connections.

The technology space in general is guilty of generating scary sounding acronyms and fancy technical terms, with ADSL being just one more example of this, but it’s really not. Let’s break down each key term:

  • Asymmetric – refers to the fact that more data is sent downstream to the user, than is sent upstream from the user. In other words, the download speed is higher than the upload speed on the service. In other words, the two speeds are not symmetrical.
  • Digital – All data sent over the internet is digital rather than analogue. It arrives into the phone line in your home in binary (0’s and 1’s) form, and the job of your modem is to convert this data into something your router can recognize and pass onto other devices.
  • Subscriber Line – All internet packages are subscribed or paid for. You unfortunately can’t just plug a modem or router into the phone line and get internet. You need to subscribe to a fixed line connection from an internet company, who’ll then open up your phone line to allow it to receive data from the wider internet at a certain speed according to what plan you paid for.

Therefore, an ADSL internet service just refers to a package where:

  1. Data is often primarily transferred over standard copper phone lines rather than fiber optic cables.
  2. The download speed is higher than the upload speed.
  3. All data is sent in digital form.
  4. You pay for a fixed line installation where the modem is connected to your phone line, and you pay a certain monthly fee to get certain maximum speeds.
  5. The modem and router are usually separate devices, but still connected together to provide internet to all users on the network.

And that’s really everything behind the ADSL term! There’s a closely related concept of a VDSL or Very High Speed Digital Subscriber Line, which operates on very similar principles.

What Is An ADSL Router?

Now we’ve looked at what an ADSL service is, what is an ADSL router? The answer’s quite simple.

An ADSL router is any router which is compatible and used with an ADSL internet service.

Any standalone router which connects to a separate modem and works with an ADSL internet service could be classed as an ADSL router.

Therefore, pretty much any standalone, separate router which is connected to a separate modem in that older style of internet service setup could be classed as an “ADSL” router, since it’s being used with an ADSL service. This ADSL label refers more to how a router is being used, and the service it’s being used for, and isn’t really an inherent feature of the router itself.

In this sense, most standalone routers fit the bill, since most of these are compatible with ADSL internet services. It’s often the modem that you need to be more picky with to ensure it’s compatible with your ADSL service. See here for more on this.

What Is An ADSL Modem?

Now let’s turn to the slightly more tricky topic of an ADSL modem. This simply refers to a standalone modem than is compatible with an ADSL internet service, and receives the data from the wider internet through the phone line, converting and passing this data onto the router, which then distributes this data to all devices on the local network via it’s LAN ports and Wi-Fi network(s).

This is something you do need to be more precise with on ADSL internet plans, because not all modems are compatible with all ADSL services. 

Some modems will not work with certain providers, therefore you will need to check product descriptions of ADSL modems carefully to make sure they are compatible with the ADSL service you are subscribed to.

See our guide on this for some ADSL modem models with specified ISP compatibility for North America.

Can An ADSL Router Be Used Without a Modem?

This is a very common question that gets asked a lot when people have standalone routers lying around without a modem. Are these routers any use on their own? Can we just plug a router on it’s own into the phone line and get internet access?

Wi-Fi routers cannot be used to access the internet without also having a modem to decipher the data coming in from the phone line. Both a modem and a router, either combined or separate, must be used to send and receive data over the internet.

For clarity, here’s a simple list of all the things you need to get online in the home through the phone line:

  1. An installed, activated internet service from an Internet Service Provider (ISP)
  2. Either a standalone router AND and standalone modem, connected together (older setups); OR
  3. A combined router-modem (newer setups)
  4. If setting up the internet for the first time, you’ll also often need to some basic initial modem/router configuration to get started. Some ISP’s have “do it yourself” self installation guides on this; others still send round technicians to set it up for you.

A Typical ADSL Internet Setup

Therefore with any ADSL home internet setup, you need both a modem and a router:

Modem on the left; router on the right

As mentioned above, a modem compatible with your ADSL service would plug into your phone line with an RJ-11 cable, and you would connect your router to this modem with an RJ-45 ethernet cable. The devices would then connect to the router, either via LAN cable or Wi-Fi, with the modem facilitating internet access via the router.

Any Wi-Fi router which works with this old fashioned, slower speed setup can be called an ADSL router.

This is in contrast to the new setup on faster speed fiber services, where the router and modem are often combined into one device, often colloquially called a “router” or “hub” or “box” or “station”. In these cases, there’s no connecting to do, since everything’s built into one device, which then plugs straight into the phone line and is ready to go.

Some ADSL Router Models

As mentioned, pretty much most decent separate standalone Wi-Fi routers should be ADSL compatible. In other words, as long as you have a separate ADSL modem that is definitely compatible with your internet service, then you should pretty much be able to plug most standalone routers into this modem and it should work fine.

However, here are some Wi-Fi router models on Amazon that are specifically listed as ADSL compatible, as long as you’ve got an ADSL modem that works with your service to plug it into:

Option #1 – Netgear R6700AX Router (Works with all ISPs, modem needed)

Here’s your first option for a router that should work with any ISP; the Netgear R6700AX Wi-Fi router:

Gaming Router

Check price on Amazon

It comes with an impressive list of specs:

  • Dual band Wi-Fi, with total speeds up to 1.8 Gbps
  • Supports up to 20 devices and coverage of up to 1500 sq ft.
  • 4 gigabit ethernet ports to plug devices into.
  • Easy fast setup with the Nighthawk app.
  • Supports all internet packages up to 1 Gbps
  • Works with any ISP (USA/UK/Canada/Australia), as long as you already have a separate modem you can connect it to.

Option #2 – TP Link AC1750 Archer A7 Router (Works will all ISPs, modem needed)

Check price on Amazon

Here’s the spec list for this one:

  • Fast dual band Wi-Fi with speeds up to 450 Mbps for the 2.4 GHz band, and up to 1300 Mbps for the 5 GHz band.
  • Supports up to 50 devices with up to 2500 sq ft of coverage
  • 4 Gigabit LAN ports to plug devices into.
  • Works with any ISP (USA/UK/Canada/Australia), as long as you already have a separate modem you can connect it to.

Option #3 – Netgear RAX43 Router (Works with all ISPs, modem needed)

Check price on Amazon

Here’s the spec list for this one:

  • Fast dual band Wi-Fi, up to 4.2 Gbps total speed across both bands.
  • Supports up to 25 devices with coverage up to 2000 sq ft.
  • 4 Gigabit LAN ports to plug devices into
  • 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) standard, but also backwards compatible with 802.11ac/b/g/n/ac.
  • Works with any ISP service up to 1 Gbps (USA/UK/Canada/Australia), as long as you already have a separate modem you can connect it to.

See here for more links and product details for fully and partially compatible ADSL modems and routers.


Online gamer and general home networking enthusiast. I like to create articles to help people solve common home networking problems.

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