Wireless Access Points and Wireless Routers: Not The Same!

January 9, 2023
Industry Commentary

“What’s difference between a wireless access point and a wireless router?”, is a question that gets asked a lot, especially by non-technical customers. After all, you could go to Best Buy and pick up a “home router” for $50 that says it does Wi-Fi at blistering speeds. So what’s a wireless access point (a “WAP” to small business and an “AP” in enterprise circles), and how does it differ from a wireless router?

On the surface, a wireless access point is just a device that broadcasts Wi-Fi signals over the air, and converts Wi-Fi connections to Ethernet LAN connections. Essentially, a sort of bridge between the Wi-Fi and Ethernet worlds. On the other hand, a wireless router contains not just a wireless access point (that ‘bridge’) but also an Internet router, a small firewall, and some other accoutrements that make it suitable as a single ‘all-in-one’ device to let consumers get on the Internet with their wireless devices. Typically a wireless router also contains an Ethernet switch to support a small number of wired workstations.

This begs the question: if a wireless router contains all this ‘stuff’ and also bridges your Wi-Fi to wired, what's the point of having stand-alone access points?

Well, the first difference is the use case. Homes are fairly small (well, mostly). A typical home or apartment doesn’t require more than one Wi-Fi device to blanket the place with wireless signals, and the connection to the ISP isn’t stuck in some wiring closet or server room. A commercial enterprise, on the other hand, could cover tens of thousands of square feet, multiple racks of equipment, lots of Wi-Fi obstacles (creating “dead zones”), and so forth. One wireless router stuck in a wiring closet behind a server isn’t going to work too well.

You need Wi-Fi devices mounted on ceilings all over the (possibly multiple) floors to get people the coverage they need. So businesses need the Wi-Fi function separated from the networking function: the Wi-Fi radios should be up in the ceilings, connected by LAN cables to the rest of the network in the racks and server rooms. Ergo, the wireless APs.

A more significant issue is scale. A wireless router is principally designed for home use: maybe 4-5 people with 10-20 devices and no security concerns. A small business may have 20-100 people in a single office. Wi-Fi has limitations on the capacity served by a single device with a single radio: typically, stuffing more than 5-10 users on a single radio is asking for trouble. So in a business, you may need to install multiple APs just to support the employees. In this case, integrating the Wi-Fi 6 function into an all-in-one router box just isn’t going to work.

There needs to be a way of having many Wi-Fi devices scattered over the office, placed on different radio channels, all feeding data to the LAN and eventually the Internet. Again - wireless APs.

Finally, there’s the engineering design. Wireless routers are intended to be cheap and almost disposable. (Ever noticed that some ISPs will simply ‘replace the router’ almost as a knee-jerk reaction to any complaint? Wireless routers have gotten so cheap that it’s less expensive to throw them away, rather than spend an hour of tech time diagnosing the problem.) That comes with a price: they’re not robust, not secure, and the software is poorly tested and full of holes. Wireless APs, on the other hand, are designed with the more demanding requirements of enterprises in mind.

So they’re more expensive, but on the flip side they’re designed to stay in the ceilings nearly forever, and happily handle continuous traffic loads. Plus they have roaming, VLAN and security functions built in that simply aren’t there in wireless routers, but essential for enterprise needs.

Bottom line: A wireless router should stay in the environment that it was designed for: The home. For a small business, however, use wireless APs!

About Uplevel Systems

Uplevel Systems, as a small businessIT infrastructure managed service provider, enables any of these options. Uplevel’s subscription offering is the most popular with SMBs, but some prefer Uplevel’s new equipment purchase program and use a CapEx model.