In today’s home we consider it essential to have connectivity to the internet at all times. For many of us, internet access is more important than traditional services like phone lines and cable TV. You may need it for work, or you may just use it for fun. Most people in the US are using broadband internet now, instead of dial-up internet that tied up the plain old telephone lines.

This shift to always-on internet access has turned each person’s home or apartment into a branch of the internet. Devices on your home network communicate with each other, and they reach out to computer around the world through your internet service provider.

Getting Internet Access

Here’s something we probably already know, in the United States, all ISPs are pretty dissapointing.

My recommendation is get the cheapest internet access you can stand to have so that you can watch two video streams at the same time. This should be at least 5 Mbps download. (Mbps stands for Mega-bits per second) If you have a full family each using their own devices like smartphones and tablets and TV streaming boxes, you should consider 20Mbps a really good speed. This speed is not available in many places, especially rural areas.

You are the one that knows your family’s needs. Higher capacity internet is important for a few scenarios. Specifically cloud backups and restores. If you have to download a big backup from your cloud service, or start up new backups online for the first time, super fast upload and download speeds will be important to you.

Broadband comes in a few basic flavors.

  • Cable
  • DSL
  • Wireless
  • Cellular

A few cities offer fiber-optic connections to the home for a premium price. It’s unclear how quickly that technology will spread in the near future. Cable and DSL are the reliable, consistent and common options. People that live in rural areas might be too far away to get those services and may have to fall back to wireless privders. Sometimes privder’s advertise a wireless technology called WiMax. This connection is usually quite good but your connection speed will drop off dramatically for each mile further away from the tower you get.

I once lived in a rural neighborhood where DSL was available but the connection quality was so bad I considered switching to WiMax before we moved. DSL runs on the old copper wires that the phone company installed. This means the quality of those wires can degrade over time, resulting in quickly dropping speeds over greater distances. Noise in the signal is what kills your internet reliability. It’s like static in a TV signal, but even more disruptive because each internet packet that has static in it must be re-transmitted form the sender and acknowledged by the recipient until it succeeds.

Routers

Don’t lease your router. I recommend you buy a Cable or DSL modem and set it to pass through directly to your own router. This isolates different concerns. And allows for flexibility in setting up complicated network structures in the future. You are responsible for your homes network, and the ISP is responsible for connecting that equipment to the internet. ISP tech support will usually still help you troubleshoot internet problems even if you bought your own router and didn’t lease theirs.

What kind of router should I get?

Advice from The Wirecutter has not led me wrong yet. I purchased a really good ASUS RT-AC66U router from their recommendaton last summer, and it has been a champ. Consumer router technology evolves quickly and their latest recommendations are probably better. If you buy a good router now for $150 it should last for 4-7 years. But, speeds are always increasing and you may want to upgrade before then, so this isn’t a guaranteed a long-term investment.

Ethernet vs. Wireless

Ethernet cables are very useful. It used to be true that if you wanted to get good video quality at a set top box you needed to connect it to your network on a wired ethernet cable. So it would be a good idea to have several ethernet cables running from your router or switch into the living-room TV cabinet. This isn’t as important anymore, but wireless signal problems can still be a real nuisance for video set top boxes. Anywhere that you need reliable high speed connections you should have an ethernet connection available.

Wireless Router Signals

On newer routers you have the choice of setting up a 2.4 and/or 5 Ghz networks. Higher frequencies don’t penetrate walls as well. If your walls are dense and made of plaster or concrete you will really start to run into range problems. So, it’s a good idea to position your router centrally so you are as close as possible to all the most common places you need a good wifi signal. If you need to watch Netflix in bed on a tablet, then you might run into problems using the 5GHz signal from the room 15 feet away through several walls. The 2.4GHz signal will probablys still work though.

You might be able to move the router depending on your home layout, if you are hunting for perfect, remember that line of sight is your best bet. If you can see the router from where you are at you will get a good signal! If you can’t see it, make sure it’s just a thin or light door between you. Think of your wifi signal like a slow billiards shot, it can make one bounce around a corner but it loses a lot of energy in the process.

You can see this phenomena in the following animation. signal strength diagram Physics research on router placement

Advanced Troubleshooting of WiFi

Your signal can also suffer from interference of routers around you. But there are channels that you can find which may be more open and could decrease signal noise inside your home. Finding this information can be a little tricky and techical.

With a Mac the tool is built in - alt-click the WiFi Icon - select “Open Wireless Diagnostics…”

On a PC - NetStumbler is free. You can pay $20 for inSSIDer but I haven’t used it, it’s a second-hand recommendation.

Find a channel that is optimal and then log into your router’s administration interface. Usually it will be at http://192.168.1.1 or http://192.168.0.1 or possibly at http://192.168.1.100

Refer to the instructions online for your router to change the WiFi channel, or just dig through the settings screens until you see a drop down list of channels. Change it to a channel that is not heavily occupied according to the wireless diagnostic tool you are using.


This is not everything I could say about networking. I have more articles planned. And more hardware reviews. I plan to start researching range extenders and powerline adapters soon.