Why set up a home network

There are a number of benefits to setting up a home network, such as being able to share hardware and software among multiple computers or devices. However, some of the advantages and disadvantages are different between wired and wireless networks.

Similar to having a cell phone plan with multiple lines for each member of the family, a home network allows multiple users to be online at the same time, though the configuration is different between wired and wireless networks. For example, the former will likely require additional cables to connect devices to a central hub, which may present logistical problems. Just keep in mind that, depending on the bandwidth, the more people sharing a single ISP connection, the increased likeliness that things may slow down.

Cord cutting illustration

The days of plugging your desktop computer directly into a modem provided by an internet service provider (ISP) and waiting for AOL.com to load are so 2000.

Whether you want to stream movies or build a small home business with a wireless printer,you need to understand the basics of setting up your own home network. The good news: You don’t have to be an IT expert to succeed.

While both types of networks allow you to share files, such as documents and photos, a wireless network allows you to operate without using additional hardware or cables. Everyone on the network can also access wireless devices such as Wi-Fi enabled printers without being directly plugged into additional hardware. A wireless network is also desirable if you want to connect Wi-Fi-enabled devices, such as a printer, to the network without requiring additional hardware.

Wired networks generally offer better connectivity over wireless networks, where distance from the internet access point can degrade performance. Wireless networks are also more vulnerable to security issues and interference, but offer a big advantage when it comes to mobility.

Must-know definitions

Before we get into the WLANs and routers—the nuts and bolts—of building a home network, let’s review a few key terms.

  • Bandwidth

    This is the amount of data your internet connection can handle, usually measured in megabits per second. Think of bandwidth as a pipe: The bigger the pipe—the higher the bandwidth—the more quickly data can flow at one time.

  • Broadband

    Refers to high-speed internet, a relative term often compared to dial-up, an older and slower technology that relies on connecting to the internet through a phone line, which is a much smaller pipe in our plumbing analogy.

  • DSL

    For digital subscriber line, is a type of broadband connection that also uses phone lines, but achieves higher bandwidths though additional hardware on both the subscriber’s and the telephone company’s end.

  • Browser

    If you’re reading this article on the internet, then you’re using a web browser, which is an application for viewing web pages. Each page has an address, called a uniform resource locator, or URL, that appears at the top of the page. Common browsers include Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari.

  • Ethernet

    Ethernet is a type of local area network (LAN). It is the wired version of a home or business network, as opposed to a wireless LAN (WLAN).

  • ISP

    An internet service provider is exactly what it says: An ISP provides access to use the internet.

  • LAN and WLAN

    Local Area Network (LAN) is simply a small-scale shared network between computers and other devices that allow them to share internet services, files, applications and other resources. A WLAN is a wireless LAN.

  • Wi-Fi

    Wi-Fi refers to the technology that allows computers, tablets and other devices to connect to the internet and each other without a physical connection

Equipment

A wired or wireless LAN does not require much additional equipment outside of a computer, modem and router, depending on your requirements. Obviously, the more complex and robust the network, the more money you will need to spend on equipment.

A network adapter is the interface between the device and network, transmitting and receiving data on both wired and wireless networks. Today, most desktop computers and laptops are built for both types of functionality. For Ethernet, this will involve an RJ-45 jack, which is slightly larger than a phone jack. Wireless network adapter chips are built into the computer’s motherboard in most newer computers. USB network adapters can also accommodate wired or wireless network setups.

Two key pieces of hardware for a personal network are:

  • The modem, which allows a computer to send or receive data through the internet via an outside connection. A single computer plugged into a modem qualifies as a home network.
  • The router, which makes it possible to expand the home network and connect multiple computers or devices to the internet in a wired or wireless network.
Illustration of a Modem and Router

A wired network requires Ethernet cables between the modem, router and each computer in the network. A wireless network only requires a hard line connection between the modem or outside connection from the ISP and the router. Many companies also sell modem and router combinations, sometimes referred to as gateways. These combination devices are convenient and usually more than sufficient for most home networks, though some users may opt for separate devices if they want more powerful routers for managing smart home devices or enhanced network security.

If opting to set up a WLAN or to add wireless access to a pre-existing wired network, there are a few additional pieces of hardware that may be useful:

  • Wireless access points expand the wireless coverage of an existing network and increase the number of users that can connect to it. (Routers are also access points, but access points aren’t necessarily routers.)
  • While wireless network adapters, access points and routers generally come with internal or external antennas, an optional antenna to improve reception may be useful for some home networks, something that can be assessed after the initial set-up.
  • Signal boosters can help extend the range of a wireless network at either the router or access point, when trying to cover a larger area.

A commercially available mesh network kit can provide consistent wireless coverage through every nook and cranny of your home network without the ad hoc approach of setting up additional antennas and boosters. It’s a bit like having your own Wi-Fi satellite network, usually involving several routers. One router serves as the hub or gateway to your internet connection. Each router or node in the system amplifies the wireless signal, providing equally consistent bandwidth throughout the home network no matter how far you are from the gateway router. The kits, however, are not inexpensive, selling for several hundred dollars or more.

Mesh router illustration

Another piece of equipment to consider is a “smart” home assistant, a device that uses artificial intelligence technologies, such as natural language processing, to enable voice-activated commands for doing a variety of things like reading emails and changing the thermostat.

These consumer devices are particularly useful if you plan to build a smart home, where appliances, thermostats and even locks are connected through your home network. The smart home assistant helps manage each smart device at one central hub rather than requiring separate apps. Many of the smart home appliances and devices on the market come ready to connect to these smart home assistants. Set-up will vary depending on the device, but it generally involves launching an app or website on your computer and enabling each device to connect with your home assistant. Additional voice commands or even hardware may be necessary depending on what piece of smart home technology you want to connect.

Setting up the system

Once you understand the terminology and equipment involved, setting up the system is quite simple and pretty well automated thanks to software and set-up applications. The physical home network will differ slightly depending on whether the system will be wired or wireless. The former will require running Ethernet cables from the broadband modem or central hub to each computer or between computers. Other small pieces of hardware for Ethernet known as hubs or switches are usually built into today’s broadband routers.

Generally, a WLAN can be configured in a couple of different ways. Peer-to-peer mode allows wireless computers and devices to communicate with each other. The infrastructure model, on the other hand, depends on a central hub through which all devices communicate. The former only allows sharing files between devices, while the latter supports access to the internet, printer and other devices on the network.

If going the wireless route, you can choose between peer-to-peer mode or infrastructure mode on the Wi-Fi network adapter. If using a router or access point, set every wireless adapter for infrastructure mode. You can also share an internet connection in peer-to-peer, or ad hoc mode, turning one computer into a hotspot. This works if using a few computers in close proximity, and may be useful in the case of a router failure.

Most of the work to set up the home network will be through the router using a web browser. The first step after ensuring all cables and power cords are plugged in it to use a web browser to display the router’s interface. The default URL for the interface should be in the device manual and/or printed somewhere on the router itself. You will also need the default login information to access the webpage.

A setup wizard normally guides you through the process of configuring the router, including changing the name of the network (SSID, for service set identifier, in wireless networks) and setting up a password. In most cases, the default settings will serve the needs of the home network.

Security

The first line of defense in securing your home network is the router. It often provides firewall protection, a sort of cyber security system that polices certain types of external internet attacks or internal threats from an infected computer. However, it should not be considered as a replacement for antivirus software. Some routers, however, are capable of enhanced security at the network level, particularly when protecting smart devices such as a home thermostat or baby monitor, which are more vulnerable to hacks.

Every router also comes with password protection for allowing wireless devices to connect to the network. Most sold today should default to the now-standard WPA2 (WiFi Protected Access2) protocol, though a few older models may still allow you to configure WPA or even the obsolete WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy). While most routers come with a default password, follow the rules for creating a strong password, such as making it at least 12 characters long, mixing in letters, numbers and symbols.

Newer wireless routers and access points come with a security feature called MAC address filtering. This allows you to determine which devices can access your network based on their unique identities, called MAC addresses. A device’s MAC address is set in the factory and cannot be changed by its user. One drawback is that it is time-consuming to set up initially and would prevent guests from easily accessing the home network.

General tips

A few last things to keep in mind when setting up your home network.

  1. Location, Location, Location

    If setting up a wireless home network, place the router in a central location or in an area closest to where you or others on the home network will use connected devices. Keep the router away from appliances such as a microwave that might interfere with the wireless signal.

  2. Costs

    Keep in mind that wireless setups are generally a bit more money than wired networks, but neither system will break the bank, as the price point for hardware like routers and access points has dropped over the years. Also, remember that you get what you pay for. You may subscribe to a high bandwidth with your ISP, but inferior network components can inhibit that connection’s abilities.

  3. Trouble connecting?

    There are a few troubleshooting measures to try, starting with rebooting the router or modem to reset the connection. Another trick is to turn off the router firewall to determine if there is a configuration problem, where most or all traffic is being shut down. Yet another approach is to go back into the router settings and reset to default. This should be a last resort, as resetting the device will erase all custom configurations.

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