Recently, we featured a story about the benefits of setting up your home network by yourself. While the reasons may be compelling, the method by which you’d do such a thing might be quite daunting. Today, we’ll talk about how to set up your home network so that it’s robust, flexible and, most importantly, secure. We’ll also talk about how to maintain that level of functionality as time goes on.
What this guide will and will not cover
This guide will presume that you access the internet through a primary modem and router device. Your internet service provider (ISP) will provide you with one already set up for your account, either as an incentive to sign up to a service plan or as a separate purchase. While you can absolutely purchase a router of your own and set it up to work with your internet account, you must do this separately through your ISP. This is simply due to the spectrum of internet connection types, ISPs and standards out there.
However, this guide will still apply to any modem, router or device, no matter where you bought it from. That’s because everything has been designed to operate on as many standards as possible. There are a lot of them, but don’t get too worried. Once you get it, you’ll never forget it.
This guide is also not going to give you an indication of how fast your internet connection needs to be, or the data you’ll be using. That’s something that’s subject to availability in the country or region in which you reside. There are far too many variables, such as family budget and national broadband infrastructure, for this type of article. For now, we’ll concentrate on the hardware requirements for a properly functioning home network.
What to consider before diving in
The first thing to understand is that no residence will have the same requirements. You might have a small apartment and only a few devices. On the other hand, you might have a large family with kids that need to do homework every day. Well, they might pretend to do homework. You might even have a multi-level house. Whatever your situation, it’s best to understand how best to tailor your home network to your needs to be effective.
Ask yourself these basic questions:
- How many people will be using this network,
- Where will people physically be using the network,
- How many devices will be accessing this network,
- What types of devices will be using this network
- How big is the area of coverage you need, and
- Whether you have a multi-level dwelling.
Obviously, the larger the area of coverage, the more complex and expensive your home network will become. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. A good home network that’s flexible will also be useful and low maintenance. Thankfully, networking equipment for the home is also rather modular, so don’t imagine there’s a requirement for a huge server stack hiding in a cupboard somewhere.
Once you’ve worked out the answers to the above questions, you’ll have to also figure out how each device will connect to the network itself. This is where complexity reaches its head. You’ll probably want to have a pen and paper ready to draw diagrams and add notes if you want to see how to set up your home network properly.
Types of devices and how they’ll connect
The simplest thing a network will enable you and your family to do is connect to the internet. A well designed home network will allow you to access the internet at the highest possible speeds anywhere in the house. However, it gets a little complicated if you have multiple devices. So here’s a rundown on how everything will talk to your network, and eventually, the internet:
- Smartphones will use WiFi,
- Smart TVs can use both Ethernet and WiFi,
- Media players, such as Rokus and Apple TVs can use wireless and wired connections,
- Tablets will use WiFi,
- Laptops can use WiFi and Ethernet, and
- Desktops will generally use Ethernet, but can have added WiFi capability.
WiFi and multiple devices
I won’t lie. Wi-Fi is a brilliant invention. It’s convenient, flexible and easy to use. However, be aware of its drawbacks. The most obvious are decreasing signal strength with distance and line of sight issues with any wireless technologies, as well as electromagnetic interference (EMI). While it’s pretty rare to have EMI these days, thick walls and bad locations of WiFi stations can affect signal strength.
Also, WiFi shares bandwidth on each channel. For instance, if you have five devices connected to the same channel, those five devices will only get one fifth of the bandwidth available. You might think that’s not an issue, but with ever more device categories that can access networks and the internet, you might find that it’s not enough to have single channel WiFi. It’s worth considering a WiFi router with both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands if you have a whole of of people and devices at your place. This way, you’re less likely to run out of bandwidth.
Ethernet is the good old fashioned way of wiring devices together. While you wouldn’t ever want to have a jungle of blue cables in one place, Ethernet is a great choice for devices you want to be always connected to the internet, or if the connection requires a high level of reliability. As much as I love WiFi’s convenience, there’s just nothing like the certainty of a wire ensuring the connection is always present. Examples of these important devices would be things like a media server, a gaming computer that requires low latency and high bandwidth or network added storage (NAS) for backups.
If you’re not willing to go all out wiring up your house with Ethernet cables, then a cheaper option is the Powerline Ethernet kit. Essentially, you get two electrical plugs which send the network signals through your powerlines. I’ve tried this before, and the connection is unreliable at best. Performance depends greatly on distance and quality of the lines in your house. If it’s not a brand spanking new house, you’re better off running Ethernet everywhere.
Choosing equipment and layout
Personally, I run a mixture of wireless and wired connections in my own home. It’s not the cheapest option, but I value reliability over cost. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you must agree with me, and there are no ultimate “right answers” for this type of thing. Go with what suits you. It might be your house is far too big to wire up, or its walls are made of solid brick. Great for insulation and structural integrity, not so good for modding in new technologies.
Irrespective of whether you choose to go with a fully wireless solution to your home network, your initial connection will be a solid wired one. Whether you have ADSL, a satellite dish or optical fibre, your modem will need a wired connection to the outside world. It’s what’s inside the house that matters.
If you have a big house, it’s important to ensure that the WiFi broadcasting unit, whether that’s your ISP provided modem or something else, is as close to the centre of the dwelling as possible. It’s also important that it’s in an open area, like a living room, and not hidden behind thick walls.
You may be tempted to go all out wiring the house with Ethernet to each and every room. Personally, I think this is a waste of time and money. You should be able to work out where people will spend most of their time, and plan accordingly. For example, you’d expect the living room, family room and study to have a lot of traffic. So you might want these areas to become “hubs” for your network and only run Ethernet to those areas and put WiFi signal repeaters where required.
Just be aware that there are different kinds of Ethernet devices. There are four main types, and they all vary in cost and ability:
Your internet device will always be a router. It’s the smartest of the bunch, able to route (hence the name) data to the correct device every time. On the other end, a hub is the cheapest of the lot and sends data to everything. It leaves the device on the other end to figure out whether that data should be received or not. Because of this, the hub also tends to share maximum bandwidth if there are multiple devices, since it only has one data stream at a time.
I hope that this guide on how to set up your home network is helpful. There are certainly many things to consider, and the complexity can increase dramatically if you’re going to try something fancy. Stay tuned for the next part of this guide, the types of software to make your home network really flourish into something you’ll enjoy using.