Witchdoctor’s essential guide to the home network

If you’ve got multiple gadgets accessing the internet then you’ve got a home network. PAT PILCHER explains how to make it sing.

 

Back in the day, going online meant tying up the phone line for eternity and either having your PC next to the phone socket or owning a very long extension cord. Thankfully, things have changed for the better. They had to. Going online at 56.6kbps was painfully slow. Besides, no one has a landline phone nowadays.

 

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We’ve also become hugely reliant on home networks. Nowadays, no network means no Netflix, no Spotify, and having to use a light switch to turn lights on and off! It isn’t hard to see why a home network has gone from being nice to have to a must-have. So, what do you need to get a half-decent home network that runs like a dream? There’s a lot to go wrong so here’s how to get it right.

Modems  

Depending on what broadband you use, you may have a modem. If you’re still using copper ADSL, Satellite or even fixed 4G or 5G, a modem is necessary. Depending on the type of broadband you’re using, it may need to be supplied by your ISP. Back in the days of copper phone lines, modems modulated digital data into an audio signal which was modulated back from audio and into data by your Internet service provider (hence the name Modem, which is literally short for Modulator-Demodulator). If you’re using fibre, a modem isn’t necessary.

Routers

Modems are usually built into routers. These sit at the very heart of a home network and route network traffic from your devices to the internet and back. Routers share the internet connection using wired network ports or Wi-Fi.

The sheer volume of network traffic can overwhelm some routers. This is a common problem for anyone setting up a smart home with a cheaper ISP-supplied router.

Many routers have one or two USB ports. These allow you to connect hard drives or printers (which can be accessed by anyone connected to your network).

Killing Wi-Fi Coverage Dead Zones

Unless you managed to pre-wire wire your home with network cabling, you’re probably reliant on Wi-Fi for connectivity. While going wireless means less cable clutter and easier setups for many gadgets, there are downsides. If you have a large home and/or a house constructed out of masonry or brick, you probably have wireless coverage blind spots. Additionally, suppose you have many nearby neighbours who are also using Wi-Fi. In that case, you may find all available Wi-Fi channels are used, and your wireless connection is either unstable or slow. Getting around these challenges isn’t hard with the right gear, but each solution has pros and cons.

Range Extenders: These devices act like radio repeaters and can be situated at the edge of your existing Wi-Fi coverage to re-broadcast your Wi-Fi signal over a new network. Range extenders are easy to set up, and they’ll boost Wi-Fi coverage. However, most use a different Wi-Fi network, so you’ll need to disconnect from your existing network and connect to the new network before they work their magic.

 

Powerline Or Ethernet Over Mains Adaptors: These are best suited for garages and sleep-outs out of Wi-Fi coverage but on the same electrical circuit as your home. Powerline adaptors plug into power sockets and have an Ethernet port so you can connect them to your router. They transmit network data over electrical wiring. There’s usually no setup required, and any mains socket can be used to extend network reach. That said, powerline adaptor performance can be impacted by other household appliances. Their overall performance is also slower than Wi-Fi or Ethernet.

Mesh Networks:  Mesh is the gold standard for killing Wi-Fi coverage dead-zones. It works by distributing the wireless network across multiple mini-routers. Because Mesh networks operate on a single network and network data processing is handled by several mesh mini-routers, Mesh networks can handle heavy network loads and are more reliable than range extenders.

 

Network Switches

While wireless issues often make up the lion’s share of networking woes, wired issues can occur too. Most routers only have four Ethernet ports, so running out of wired connections is commonplace. Getting around this may see you investing in a network switch.

A network switch has multiple LAN ports allowing you to connect more wired network widgets to your router. In short, it’s the networking equivalent of an electrical plug extension box.

Some switches also come with PoE, otherwise known as Power over Ethernet. This handily means that the network cable can carry electricity plus network data. For smaller connected gadgets such as security cameras, this reduces the amount of cable clutter as power adaptors are not needed.

Storage: NAS 

If, like me, you ripped your entire CD collection to a digital audio format, using a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive makes a tonne of sense. NAS drives connect to your network. This allows its data to be accessible to anyone on your network (that said, you can also control who can access what with most NAS drives). A NAS isn’t just for music storage. Documents, computer backups and photos/videos can all be stored to be easily accessible from a centralised location.

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