It’s not unheard of for a family home to have a dozen networked devices. Home networking devices have been around as long as I can remember, as a kid I remember setting up a caching proxy server in order to share a slow dial-up connection. These days it is easier than ever to take advantage of home networking; many devices are ready to go out of the box, or at the very least come with clear and easy instructions for set-up.
Wi-Fi, the unavoidable convenience
If you have high-speed internet, you likely have a wireless router as well. Infact most homes likely only have a Wi-Fi router hooked up to a modem. Easy access to your network from across the room or across your house. Great right? Carefree internet access wherever you might be. For all the convenience you get there are two major downsides: speed and security.
Speed – So let’s take a look at speed. For those who have high-speed internet availability, you might be purchasing a subscription ranging from a few Megabits per second upwards to several Gigabits per second. The more the better? That depends on what you will or even can use.
Most users will go out and grab a wireless router off the shelf or have one provided by their ISP. You could get a faster 802.11ac device but likely you will end up grabbing the cheaper 802.11n device. Seeing something like 450Mbps on the side of the box will make you assume this device will be plenty to cover your use. Unless you live in the countryside as the sole user of your wireless network while sitting in the same room as your wireless router it is very unlikely you will ever experience the advertised speeds.
Why? Because these are advertised as best case scenarios. The bands these devices are in often experience heavy interference, if you live in apartment complex imagine every neighbor with a router, cordless phones, and microwave competing for the band. Wireless signals have a difficult time penetrating through walls. Not only this, but wireless networks are a shared medium, a hub if you will. So, without a proper set-up you might end up letting over 95% of that gigabit connection go to waste.
Either save some money and get yourself a cheaper plan based on your needs, or take advantage of that speed by setting up a wired network with multiple wireless access points.
Security – Speed is one problem, but what about security? All data on a wireless network is by nature broadcast over the air. Anyone who is nearby can potentially capture any and all data being broadcast.
Why is this? Wireless networks segments act as a hub, meaning that all data in the network is broadcast to all devices in the network. It is each connected devices responsibility to accept or deny data based on whether it is meant for that device or not. It comes down to an honor system, it is relatively simple to set a device to accept all data being exchanged through the network.
Are we being a little bit too paranoid? Yes and no. The easier you make it for someone to get into your network and the more visible you make your data, the more likely you are opening yourself up to malicious behavior.
First of all, if you have no password protection, set it up right away. But what security do you want to use, does it matter? Often you’ll be given WEP as your first choice in a drop down menu. WEP might as well be the same as putting up a do not enter sign on your property – it can easily be ignored with little effort. Many downloadable apps can break into WEP protection within seconds. So if WEP is useless, then what? WPA is harder to crack into, but still relatively easy. I recommend WPA2 + AES and disable WPS if it is available (using WPS opens up a security hole), this will give most users the level of security they seek.
Again, wireless network is a great convenience that is indispensable in any home. That said, there will be times you may want to seek the speed, security and reliability of a wired home network.
Full speed ahead: Wired networking
You might have family members that want to stream different HD content to their rooms, while making video calls and browsing the web. To take full advantage of your home network and high-speed internet connection you are definitely going to want to wire your network.
Messy wiring? Try Ethernet over power
If you don’t feel comfortable running hundreds of feet of Ethernet cabling through your home you can try Ethernet over Power devices. These devices plug into outlets and use your existing power lines to transmit data. Speeds tend to be much faster than wireless networks, reaching up to 1.2 gigabits Be aware that this setup suffers from the fact that Ethernet over power segments act as a hub, which means every device will take a cut of the available bandwidth. For many users this will likely not be a concern.
Ready to wire? Make a plan!
Whether you live in a small apartment or large home, it’s important to make some sort of plan. You’ll need to know how many feet of wire you need, how many connections you want, and where you want them. You might want to draw a map of your home with this information and make a network diagram to get a better understanding of how to proceed. This might seem a bit intimidating to some, but honestly it’s not hard – I’ve done it to every apartment I’ve moved into.
Getting a cat is normally a big responsibility, but don’t worry in this case we are deciding what category cable to get. Cat5e/Cat6/Cat6A? What cabling you use is largely up to your needs, how much you are willing to spend, and if you want to future proof your installation. Cat5e cabling will likely be cheaper to get and can be used for Gigabit Ethernet over very short distances, but will only provide you with 100Mbps for up to 100 meter runs. Cat6 will allow gigabit to be ran for up to 100 meters, and cat6A will allow for 10Gbps over the same distance.
I would recommend most users stick to the basics. Your typical Wi-Fi router will have a WAN port that goes out to the internet, and 4-switch ports that you can run your Ethernet cables from. You’ll find that even switches and routers have different available speeds per port or device. Again, it’s up to you if you need more speed, but for most heavy users even the most basic devices will do. If you want to pursue better and faster capabilities, you can likely find cheap or even free older professional switches on sites like Craigslist. 5-year-old professional switches will outperform most consumer grade products today. Setting up professional equipment is beyond the scope of this article, but there are plenty of resources online.
Do whatever fits your needs
Setting up a proper home network is not for everyone. You might be happy with simply browsing the web over Wi-Fi while watching the occasional Netflix show in the afternoon. But maybe you’ve got a big family, lots of flat mates, or just want to see that movie in HD, in which case you may want to consider other options for your home networking needs.