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I have only an Ethernet cable straight to my apartment.

The Internet works when I just plug in this cable into the computer.

They say that there is a switch somewhere in the apartment building.

Where is actually the modem? Is it somewhere on the ISP side? How does it work?


P.S. During my discussion on this platform, I realized that my ISP is a reseller.

Most ISP's in my country sell the traffic this way - users don't need a modem.

I guess, it is called the "FTTN (Fiber To The Node)" connection.

So the modem must be somewhere on the ISP reseller side.

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  • 9
    I would be surprised to see a setup like this in the US, but I would guess that the modem (or other ISP equipment) is common to your whole apartment building, and is located in a basement or wiring closet somewhere. Jul 28, 2020 at 9:38
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    @GlennWillen You should visit NYC sometime. Large Apartment buildings have this kind of infrastructure.
    – boatcoder
    Jul 28, 2020 at 11:05
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    @boatcoder, should I ever visit NYC, will you show me some network infrastructure? :)
    – Carsten S
    Jul 28, 2020 at 15:32
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    @GlennWillen This is common in college towns too.
    – Hearth
    Jul 28, 2020 at 17:41
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    So the modem must be somewhere on the ISP reseller side -- There may not be a modem at all. A modem is used when the digital signal is being sent via a sinusoidal carrier. If the signal is being sent digitally, there won't be a modem. This would be done by using long distance fiber to an ISP where they would be connected via other long distance fiber.
    – Ben
    Jul 28, 2020 at 19:17

5 Answers 5

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Modems are not a requirement, at all. They just happen to be the common case in many parts of the world because they allow usage of existing (quite often old) telephony or cable television infrastructure to provide internet access.

In many of the more developed parts of the world though (except the US, because we're still essentially a third-world country when it comes to internet access outside of very large cities), it is far more common to have 'Ethernet in the first/last mile' (that is, the final link from the ISP to the client demarcation point (usually a gateway or NAT router) is Ethernet of some sort, with 'first/last mile' referring to that link specifically). In most places, this translates to a fiber-optic link to the ISP, but in dense residential buildings such as apartments, it's much more common for it to be Cat5e (or if you're lucky Cat6) UTP cabling (that is, 'regular' Ethernet cabling).

In such setups, there's no need for a modem at all, because you're not tunneling Ethernet or IP over a different type of physical link (such as X.25, ISDN, or DOCSIS). You will usually need a router though (and should have one even if you don't need it because it provides an extra layer of security).

In your particular case, either your apartment is set up like this (that is, you have a centralized link to the ISP which is then distributed through a switch to each of the apartments), or you have a single centralized modem which is handled in the same way.


As an aside, there really may be no modem here at all. While the internet, in it's infancy, did originally rely a lot on connections over analogue communications channels like phone lines, that hasn't been the case for the core of the internet for multiple decades. Modems have only hung on because ISPs are cheap bastards who don't want to invest in newer infrastructure until there's no other option (this is also why we're still stuck using IPv4 more than 20 years after IPv6 was developed). Outside of that first/last mile, you won't find modems involved in internet access in most parts of the world unless you're quite literally in the middle of nowhere. The modern internet runs on fiber Ethernet links between major data centers, and has nothing to do with analogue communications infrastructure.

The real irony here is that a lot of the traditionally analogue telecommunications industries are migrating to running on the modern fiber network infrastructure the core of the internet runs over. A lot of bigger phone companies are already using VoIP on their internal networks instead of historical analogue network protocols like X.25 and ISDN, and even many cable and satellite television services are moving the same direction.

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    You're saying you can plug a fiber optic cable directly into a router WAN port? TIL I'd add that people still carry modems in their pockets an a daily basis :)
    – jiggunjer
    Jul 29, 2020 at 8:07
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    In Finland there is also many homes with internet over telephone or TV cable. I guess there was some historical period when good telephony or TV cables were laid. And now many existing buildings in developed countries are trapped with those, when it is cheaper to make customer buy a modem than to lay another cable. In Russia, for example, most ISPs lay their ethernet cables to the flat because there is simply no other cable to use.
    – max630
    Jul 29, 2020 at 12:51
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    While I appreciate the answer, and it is accepted, it could be much improved by cutting all the sarcasm ("stuck in the 20th century", "ISPs are cheap bastards" etc.) and reducing it to the technological facts. And maybe explaining the confusion with the word "modem" (which is used by some providers to mean the end device that the user gets - like a FritzBox etc. - even if todays modems do a lot more than just modulating and demodulating).
    – AnoE
    Jul 29, 2020 at 14:42
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    @t7e Unfortunately I'm not aware of any good literature on it myself, or at least any that doesn't involve getting into all the complexities of how the internet itself works. The Wikipedia page about ISPs gives a really basic overview, but not what I'd consider a concrete explanation of how they work. Jul 29, 2020 at 14:57
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    @kostix From what I understand this is the case in many major European citiesas well. Makes me really sad I live in the US, because it's pretty rare here unless you're in or very close to a city that hosts major data centers (hell, I live near a major USAF base and still don't have the option of anything other than DOCSIS or ADSL). Jul 29, 2020 at 17:42
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There could be a modem connecting to the switch/router gear that is in the other side of that Ethernet connection, however a modem is not mandatory.

Depending where you are, it is entirely probable that your connection does not use a modem of any sort. For example, in New Zealand we have fibre to the home/fibre to the building. Fibre does not require a modem - only a media converter. (There are likely additional layers.like PPPoE and/or VLANS handled by a router but there is no modem).

The ISP does not require a modem either as the signal is digital. (All a modems job is to convert a digital sihnal into an analog one and back. This is needed, for example, to send and receive data over phone cable/2 wire copper and cable connections)

(I disagree with John and assert that a reseller is an ISP, as the meaning of the word is fairly generic. I know because I have built ISP's - including ISPs which sold services to resellers)

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    Note that a media converter has the same functionality as a modem, only with optical signals instead of electrical ones...
    – user253751
    Jul 28, 2020 at 9:54
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    @t7e Telephone lines an BGP are completely unrelated concepts. It's like asking whether there are BGP routers if your ISP uses fiber optics. It's also like asking whether TV studios are still involved when you have cable TV.
    – user253751
    Jul 28, 2020 at 9:57
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    Your modem/fibre connection is a physical delivery medium. BGP is a means for providers to balance and route traffic and is independent of the delivery mechanism. While commonly deployed and highly advantageous, an ISP does not have to use BGP. Traffic to modems can be routed statically in much the same way your router does it, or (internally) using another protocol like RIP or OSPF if they have banks of modems and need to allocate static IPs.
    – davidgo
    Jul 28, 2020 at 10:20
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    @davidgo They're all fundamentally the same thing, just with different names and maybe more than one of them in the same box.
    – user253751
    Jul 28, 2020 at 11:20
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    "Fibre does not require a modem" Not sure what you mean here. Fibre (fiber here 😉) is a medium, not a protocol. Fiber can run whatever you want on it, it doesn't care. The two things at either end do the talking, the fiber just carries the message. (Likewise, the two things doing the talking don't usually know or care what their message is being carried over, they just need to know something is there carrying the message. An IP connection has successfully been made over carrier pigeon if I'm not mistaken. 😁)
    – RTHarston
    Jul 28, 2020 at 16:27
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When internet was younger, we had decent phone lines, so we could use those to connect our households to the internet. That's the use of classic modem - converting the Ethernet signal to something that can be carried over the phone line or similar.

These days it becomes increasingly rare as we are having more and more infrastructure built specifically to carry internet traffic. It has already shifted over - in many countries telephony is carried over internet. I was briefly working in a company developing solutions for that in 2012 and back then many of the mobile providers in Europe were already using internet to carry the calls between cell towers. Afterwards I've worked with three companies that have ripped out or cut off their phone lines and replaced them with IP telephony.

Of course, there are still devices that convert signal to be carried over different medium, but the modems that hook up to the phone line in your home are pretty much a thing of the past.

During my discussion on this platform, I realized that my ISP is a reseller.

It's not like they are buying the internet and selling it to you. We are all part of the internet and we are paying the ISPs for providing the connection between us. Your ISP is reselling only in a sense that they pay some other companies for using their high bandwidth connections to other ISPs.

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    Well, a "DSL modem" would connect Ethernet on your computer's side to the phone line signal. Before that, a "modem" was inside the computer instead of an Ethernet NIC, and connected directly to the phone line.
    – axus
    Jul 28, 2020 at 14:58
  • @axus, yes, but I am not sure that it is accurate to call the signal that comes into the DSL modem on my desk a phone line any more.
    – Carsten S
    Jul 28, 2020 at 15:37
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    @CarstenS the "phone line" is the cable. If you have DSL then yes it's coming over a phone line, from your telephone exchange.
    – OrangeDog
    Jul 28, 2020 at 16:55
  • @OrangeDog, kind of, but the only phone connections that can be established via it nowadays are VoIP on top of DSL.
    – Carsten S
    Jul 28, 2020 at 16:57
  • @CarstenS no, a line that runs DSL to your telephone exchange can also run regular phone communications. VoIP over DSL isn't a great idea - the QoS will be a lot worse than just using the phone line normally. I'm not even sure that a VoIP phone supports a direct DSL connection - and you'd need to connect it via Ethernet to your modem as well.
    – OrangeDog
    Jul 28, 2020 at 23:32
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The modem is in a cabinet somewhere in your building. All the apartments in the building are sharing the same modem* and the same connection to the ISP. A series of switches are dividing and distributing individual network connections to the apartments.

Fibre to the Node just means there are fibre-optic cables going to a cabinet somewhere (on the street or at the bottom of the building), where it probably switches to co-ax until it gets to the modem. It has nothing to do with the business model of your ISP.

It's highly unlikely that Ethernet cables are coming into your building - they do not support the distances required without (relatively) expensive repeaters, which also add a lot of latency.

* there may actually be a couple, for redundancy and/or increased bandwidth.

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  • I agree that there's a cabinet somewhere in the building containing some kind of Ethernet switch. The purpose of the switch is to fan-out the Internet connection to the apartments. There a lot of Metro Ethernet in New York, where Ethernet is carried over fiber to the building, and then distributed from there via a standard Ethernet switch. There's something a lot like a modem that basically converts the media from Fiber to classical Cat 5/6 physical layer.
    – the_limey
    Jul 30, 2020 at 9:43
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You don't have a modem... for some definition of "modem".

Your Ethernet port actually contains a modem (modulator-demodulator). That's what converts the digits in your computer into analog electric vibrations over the cable.

From a more general networking viewpoint, your DSL line, or Ethernet, or wifi connection or optical cable, whatever - are not much different. You have some signal going in some media using some protocol - and modems/tranceivers at both ends.

What your ISP sells you as a "modem" (if they do) is up to them, as long as you are OK using it. It is usually a router that has a port compatible with their network (DSL, DOCSIS, optical, cellular or even Ethernet).

In a lot of places with higher populaiton density it is both cheaper and easier to build an Ethernet LAN for a building, a neighborhood or a small vilage. It may or may not have an optical backbone and it may have whatever uplink is available. (It also may or may not have a static/lighting protection, but that's another story...).

Ethernet ISPs are quite popular in a price-sensitive markets as in Eastern Europe. I see no technical reason why they shouldn't operate in any apartment building (regulation may be a non-technical reason). It may be just the landlord if the building has a single/major one.

Where I live (Sofia) ~60% of the Internet customers just get Ethernet and everything is as simple as plugging the cable in your computer. It is up to you to install a wifi router (or your ISP may sell you a medicore one).

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