Tech DIY

The Ultimate Guide To Home Networking

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If you have ever had problems with your home network not performing the way it needs to, here's the gist of what you need to know to resolve the most common issues. I recently made a major upgrade to my WiFi and internet router after my parents and brother stayed with us and there suddenly were 7 people surfing the internet and watching YouTube at the same time on their tablets and cell phones.

My internet router (and WiFi hotspot) located in our master suite on the other side of the house came to an unusable crawl with the sudden spike in usage. I have built many large networking solutions in corporate environments and private homes, so the state of affairs in my own home was unacceptable. Here's how I solved this immediate crisis and also future proofed my house, so my home network does not embarrass me again and I do not have to spend much time maintaining it.


Wired Networking

The fundamental issue with WiFI is that the technology limits the amount of data that can travel through the airwaves per radio channel used, so if we can first remove as much traffic as possible from going through wifi that is a great starting point. Understanding how a a single router with 8 wired ports and a WiFi hotspot works is pretty straight forward, but when you start adding additional wired network switches to the setup, it's usually outside most peoples comfort zone.
At my house I have now hardwired all non-mobile devices to network switches. Almost every media device in your media center, office and bedroom TV, needs internet to get updates and/or play internet content. In my house the current count of wired network ports used in living room is 15+, Office have 10+ and the master suite also has 15+ wired devices. In addition the kids have their own wired connection to their computers in their rooms. This amount of devices cannot possibly be served by a normal WiFi hotspot/router along with all our mobile phones and tablets. When most of the traffic is heavy usage like streaming of online video and the use of a home server with close to 10TB of video ready for consumption.
Another huge benefit of wired devices is that you never have to worry about dropped WiFi connections, re-connecting devices that have WiFi trouble and change passwords on a number of devices after your spouse "loans" your neighbor the WiFi password to your neighbor who never stops using it.
Adding wired connections to anything that is not portable is a must to get your home networking problems under control. Building out a wired network is much easier than what it sounds like. As longs as you can stretch one single network Ethernet cable to a room with many devices that's all it takes.

Here's the gist of what you need to know to add one or a series of network switches to your home network and have them run without problems. Think of network cables as plumbing that brings internet to all your devices and your switches as the junctions where pipes breaks apart to serve all your faucets, washing machines and garden watering system. The way to connect networking switches for home use is equivalent to your water plumbing.
There are many types of networking switches on the market, but I recommend only getting Gigabit switches with metal housing. Gigabit (1 Gb/s = 1000 Megabit/s) switches handle ten times as much data at the same time as a Fast Ethernet (100 Megabit/s) version and only cost a few dollars more. On the right side of the page you will find some I highly recommend.

Start by attaching one cable from your home internet router to your main ethernet switch. You can typically use any port on your router, except the one marked to be connected to your internet modem. Then connect the other end of the Ethernet cable to any port on the switch. I personally always plug it into the first port to know what cable handles downstream traffic, but this is purely a personal preference. Now you have a central switch with enough ports to act as a central cross connect with outbound network cables leading to other rooms (or another switch to serve the same room) with their local switches. You now have the fundamentals of your wired home network in place. Let's assume you have your main switch in the office and you stretched one Ethernet cable to the living room, one to the master suite and one to each of the kids bedrooms. For any of those rooms where you need more than one wired connection you simply attach a new switch to the Ethernet cable and connect all the equipment in that room to the switch. Similar to water flowing through plumbing, the network traffic will find its way from any device to any other device on your local network or out through your router to the internet. The ONLY important thing to remember when connecting home network is to avoid cross connecting any switches, so that network traffic has multiple ways to travel from one unit to another or to the internet router. Always connect the switches to ONLY one other switch that is closer to your router. The network switches used for home networking only know how to direct network traffic as long as there is only one way to get from one point to another in the network.

WiFi networks

After doing what you can to minimize the amount of network traffic that needs to go through WiFi, let's examine the options typically available for in home Wifi connectivity and find what will work for you.

The first thing to consider is how far a typical WiFi signal reaches. WiFi routers typically operate on the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz radio frequencies. The lower the frequencies the farther they reach, but the tradeoff is less data capacity/throughput. In my experience the 2.4 Ghz signals works well up to two rooms away from a WiFi access point and the 5Ghz works up to one room away.
The advertising typically promises a lot more, but you are not living in the middle of an open field with direct line of sight between your laptop and the WiFi Access point. A single wall or big piece of furniture cuts the reach to a fraction of the theoretical distance. For detailed information on the technical aspect check out this Wikipedia article on WiFi technology explains it all.
A typical single modern WiFi network access point (usually built into your router) has one 2.4Ghz and one 5Ghz channel available.

On your wireless device you have to log into these separately and manually switch between them if you would like to use the other frequency. In the same room the 2.4 Ghz may have 50-150 Megabit/s total capacity and the 5Ghz frequency may have approx. 150-400 Megabit/s theoretical capacity, but in practical use it's much less when multiple device compete for the bandwidth at the same time.
If you remember my scenario with 7 family members trying to use a single access point across the house (3 rooms away), then the 5Ghz will hardly connect and the 2.4 Ghz will not get even close to supporting the typical usage.

So let's get down to the gist of what you need to do to have great WiFi at home.

► If you have a small apartment and are able to locate the WiFi access point/hotspot in a central room with only one wall between the hotspot and your devices then by all means use a router with built in WiFi and that will work fine. Connect the devices typically in the same room as the hotspot to the 5Ghz band and the devices in adjoining rooms to the 2.4 Ghz band. This will support a family of 2-4 with typical usage (if only couple of people are streaming video at the same time).

► If you have a house over 1500 square feet, you will need more than one access point. You may also get away with extending your networks reach by using WiFi repeaters, but this only extends the reach by maybe 50% of one of your existing WiFi frequencies in one direction. It's a possible patch to support one additional room that needs a little boost in signal strength, but that's about it.

► So what is the ideal solution for large homes you ask? The solution is to have multiple primary access points, so that each access point can be on different frequencies within the 2.4GHz or 5Ghz bands. (See this Wikipedia article for explanation of the channels/bands)
If you remember back to the beginning of the article we have already established that you should have installed at least one Ethernet hardwired connection (plus a switch in each room) to the key areas of your house to avoid bogging down the WiFi with unnecessary traffic. You can now install a hardwired WiFi access point in each of these locations and they will have an aggregate capacity of more than the sum of the individual access points because the distance to each device is much smaller. They can also use different radio frequencies for each room. You can buy special single WiFi access points for this or even hook up old routers you may have laying around. There is just one problem with this configuration and that's the fact that these are separate access points and require you to switch between them manually as you move through the house to get optimal usage from them.

► What if there were a way of having all your access points appear to all your devices a single network? Good news! There is! And that's how all large businesses, hotels and companies have seamless WiFi connectivity throughout their properties. Can you have this at home? Certainly, but it requires you to have wired connections to where you put these integrated access points. If you have that you need look into these products - Unbiquity makes a range of them priced simlilarly to other non integrated access points and they work amazingly well in a home environment. Each access point costs less than $100 so with two or three of these you can cover a very large house with no hassle, full speed Wifi as you move through the house.

With these installs you can also keep your old router/access point in place and have your guests use it or you can take one more step and also upgrade you router to a "corporate class" one without built in Wifi. The latter is strongly preferable as the synchronized Umbiquity routers then will be able to use all the available radio frequencies without competing with your old access point.


The Gist

If you want an integrated system that is very easy to install and maintain (without the complete control and advanced features the Unbiquity systems offer) the Google Wifi System is hard to beat. So the Gist of it is that if you need great WiFi connectivity at home, get a solution where you have multiple hard wired access points around the house and that these access points are coordinating and handing off connections between them as you move around your house. If you do this you may also avoid having to hardwire all non-portable devices in hard to reach places and get away with 2-3 Ethernet cables connecting the central use areas of your house.
Last Updated on 10/29/2017

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