Today’s home and home office networks are miracles of modern technology: fast, reliable, and convenient (and safe if you inform yourself and keep up with security precautions).
If the diagram below does not look familiar to you, and its components do not make sense, you have come to the right place. This is Home Networking 101, teaching the basics of understanding and working with your home network to keep it humming, and equipping you to make the most out of your computing experience.
The Wireless Router
Most likely provided by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), your wireless router is the heart and soul of your network. It contains all you need for connecting all your devices together and to the Internet in one box:
Newer ISP provided wireless routers often have 5 main functions in 1 box: Router/Firewall, 4 Port (typical) hardwired switch, Wireless (WiFi) Access Point, and Cable or DSL Modem. Wireless routers and modems also can be separate items.
You can purchase the equipment yourself, or rent it from your ISP. I highly suggest renting this equipment from the ISP. If there is a problem, it greatly simplifies troubleshooting and they cannot blame the problem on your self-supplied networking equipment, which might cost you money and a lot of hassle.
The core component of the wireless router is the router/firewall processor and software. It handles most of the networking details of the wireless router.
It reads the packets coming to it from your various devices, decodes them, updates the packets as necessary for the intended target device, then routes them either to another device on your local network or out through the modem component destined for the Internet. It also reads incoming packets from the Internet and routes them to the appropriate device on your home network.
If you access the wireless router setup directly from your computer, there are many configuration options for the router and firewall. The default selections are usually sufficient for most applications, and the firewall should always be enabled.
An important function of the router/firewall component is Network Address Translation (NAT). This hides the internal makeup of your local network and devices from the Internet and translates addresses of incoming and outgoing packets appropriately to show only a single Internet Protocol (IP) address for your entire network on the Internet. Typically, this gives you room to have up to 253 IP addresses (and their associated “nodes”, or devices) on your home network - plenty for most applications.
Also, if you own your own equipment, keep the router firmware updated regularly to fix security and usability issues. This is very important, and often overlooked.
Most Wireless Routers come with a hardwired switch capability, often with four ports to plug four different devices into. Using an Ethernet cable to hardwire a device gives the most reliable, fast and secure connection. If at all possible, hardwire your most critical devices (like your desktop PCs and laptops) directly to the wireless router, especially if they have sensitive data on them that needs to be kept private.
Hardwired connections are more reliable and safer because they are not going through the air. When you use the wireless (WiFi) capability, the connection can be unreliable or slower than optimal for a variety of reasons, including distance from the transceiver, interference from other radio sources (other WiFi routers, microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices, etc.), atmospheric conditions and configuration of the house (walls, furniture, etc.). A hardwired connection does not suffer from such problems.
On a WiFi connection, using sniffing equipment or software on a PC, malefactors could potentially capture your Internet traffic from a distance and gain access to private information. This is hard, and not usually a concern, but it can happen, especially in apartments or condominiums where many different people are within range of your WiFi signal and are anonymous. This is not a problem with hardwired connections. Also, disable and don’t use WiFi Protected Setup (WPS). It is unsafe.
In modern equipment, the hardwired Ethernet connection is typically faster overall, with a full-duplex connection of 1 Gbps (Gigabits per second) on both send and receive (hence, full-duplex) for each individual connection, for a potential of 2 Gbps of dedicated bandwidth for each device. It also does not have a problem with decreased speed and reliability with distance from the router.
Compare this to around 1.3 Gbps maximum on a half-duplex 802.11ac WiFi network under ideal conditions, which must be shared between all competing devices, with various factors discussed above slowing it down, and you can see how at the current evolution of WiFi, hardwired is overall still the fastest, most reliable, and safest choice.
Wireless Access Point
Even though WiFi is relatively unreliable and insecure compared to hardwiring, for the most part your experience will be very positive and trouble free. Its best attributes are its convenience and freedom to roam with your devices—two very important factors that make it the first choice for connecting to the Internet for many applications, especially mobile devices.
The wireless router includes the necessary radio hardware and antennas to implement the wireless connections, and speeds have continued to evolve upward so the newest iterations of WiFi are suitable for even the most demanding applications like streaming high-definition video and gaming.
Placement of the wireless router will impact the signal strength. The higher and more centrally located, the better the signal will be throughout the house. Pay attention to obstructions around the wireless router, like walls and large furniture. These can block the signals. Also, external antennas of the appropriate type can make a difference in range and speed.
Currently there are two different radio frequency ranges available: 2.4Ghz and 5.0Ghz. 2.4Ghz is older, more crowded and slower. The newer 5Ghz is what is used for the fastest connections and is a better choice. Always choose devices and network equipment that can utilize the 5.0Ghz frequency range if possible, and when you hook up your WiFi, select the 5.0Ghz frequency if possible rather than the more problematic 2.4Ghz choice.
For the more tech savvy, you can choose different channels in your router configuration, as often the defaults are the same among different wireless routers, and hence more crowded and slower. If you are having slower than expected speeds, you can experiment with various channels.
Keep your firmware updated in your wireless router to mitigate security flaws that become identified that can be exploited by bad guys and, I will repeat, make sure WPS is turned off as it is unsafe.
Finally, we come to the last component of a multi-function wireless router: the modem.
Modem stands for “MODulator/DEModulator,” and it turns the digital signals of your internal network into the analog signals used by cable and DSL and vice-versa. It is the link between you and your Internet Service Provider, and the cable that goes out to the external world hooks into it.
The modem must be compatible with your Internet service, and when troubleshooting your ISP technician can determine signal strengths and other factors needed to know if everything is OK between you and the ISP, and can monitor whether your connection is healthy or ailing, and in what manner.
As stated earlier, I suggest you do not buy your own modem, or wireless router that includes a modem, to avoid hassles and costs associated with the troubleshooting stage of a problem. The first thing technical support from your ISP will ask you is whether or not you are on a wired or wireless connection, and then whether or not you own your own network equipment (modem and wireless router, or combo). Being able to answer “hardwired” and “I rent my wireless router from you” puts it back in their court and saves time, hassles and potentially money.
Network (Range) Extenders
Net extenders are needed if you have a large home or difficulty with the signal from the main wireless router going through walls or furnishings. Very unobtrusive, they can plug in a wall socket in a room or hall, then once configured, extend the range of the WiFi signal so devices far away can access the network.
Often, your ISP will install them for you if necessary—give them a call. Or, you can get them yourself fairly cheaply. Place them strategically, and follow the setup instructions. They are pretty straightforward to use.
Your home or home office network is typically reliable, fast and convenient. The Internet is unsafe—never forget that. Bad guys are constantly looking for ways to steal your information or disrupt your service. But when properly informed, and properly configured, modern home and home office networks can provide a safe haven for you to do your personal and business computing in ways unimaginable only a couple of decades ago.
Education is the key to staying safe and having a positive experience overall, and these Networking 101 discussions are designed to help inform you to that end. Armed with this education, you will be able to interact with computing professionals in a much more effective way to help yourself as your own technology advocate.
This has been a high-level overview of a typical home and home office network, and lays the groundwork for more in-depth and targeted treatments of the various aspects of networking and computing technology in future articles. These articles will help you have the best computing experience possible and make the wisest, most informed choices when dealing with a technologically advanced world.