With Home Internet Use Surging, Here's How to Build a Home Network That Flies
There's been a lot of talk lately about how the rollout of 5G cellular networks are going to change everything about the way we use the internet. The main benefit that most average users will see is a big boost in mobile data speed, with 5G networks maxing out at a blazing 20 Gb/s. In theory, that's going to allow smartphone and mobile device users to do things like watch 8k video streams on a moving train, and for things like autonomous vehicles to become a practical reality. In truth, however, most users probably won't notice much of a difference for quite a while even after 5G achieves widespread penetration.
That's because the simple reality is this – mobile users just don't use all that much bandwidth. If you think about it, that makes sense when you consider that a mobile device doesn't typically share its' connection with anyone else, and you can only watch a single high-definition video at once on the one screen you have. By contrast, home users chew through bandwidth at an astounding rate – an average of 174GB per month by Xfinity's calculations, and over 200GB for Charter customers. That number also doubles for cord-cutters, who make up an increasing share of home internet users.
All of that adds up to one inescapable conclusion. It's that our home internet connections are where we do our internet heavy lifting, and it's there that we should be worrying about things like throughput and bandwidth. Still, it's more common than ever for people to run into a litany of issues when trying to build home networks that are up to the task. For one, most people live in houses that simply weren't built to accommodate the things that make modern home networks tick. The good news here is that there are ways to deal with those issues, and it doesn't take an I.T. pro to pull it off. Here's what you can do.
Start by Examining Capacity
The first thing to start with when building a home network is the internet connection itself. If you're lucky enough to live in an area with multiple providers, you might be able to save a great deal of money by choosing the right internet service package for your home without paying for capacity you don't need. To do that, though, you need to assess what your estimated usage is. As a baseline, you can calculate your needs by adding up these usage estimates and multiplying by the number of devices that you'll be using at once:
- General Web Surfing: 1-2 Mbps
- Online Games: 1-3 Mbps
- SD Video Streams: 3-4 Mbps
- HD Video Streams: 5-8 Mbps
- 4K Video Streams: 15-25 Mbps
- 8K Video Streams: 50-100 Mbps
- Filesharing: 50Mbps
As you can see, heavy video users will need quite a bit more bandwidth than your average web surfer, and the numbers add up quickly. It's also a good idea to add approximately 20% of the number you come up with to account for usage growth and provider congestion at peak times.
Choosing the Right Router
In many cases, the ISP that's providing your service will include a wireless router/modem with your plan, and if you're a light user, that's fine. If you completed the previous step and came up with a big number, however, you're probably going to want your own Wi-Fi router to make sure to avoid congestion and allow for custom configuration. To choose the right one, however, you'll need to answer these questions first:
- How many wired devices will you need to connect?
- How many wireless devices do you expect to use at any one time?
- Are any of your wireless devices Wi-Fi 6 compatible or do you expect to purchase any within the next three years?
- How large is your home, and how much of it needs Wi-Fi coverage?
To begin with, if you answered no to question 3, you'll be able to get away with a wireless router that supports 802.11AC or Wi-Fi 5. If you answered yes, or if you're going to have a large number of connected devices, you'll need one that offers 802.11ax or Wi-Fi 6. In fact, a Wi-Fi 6 router will also cover more area, be somewhat future-proof, and have less chance of suffering signal degradation due to adjacent networks. Also, you should consider connecting as many of your home's devices as possible using wired connections, as this will provide security benefits and make for a much better Wi-Fi experience for the remaining devices.
Home Network Retrofit Options
If you read the advice above and realized that many of your home's devices simply aren't close enough to your router location to use a wired connection – don't give up yet. There are several ways that you can add wired connections to your home without having to tear up your walls or string ethernet cable all around. Consider these options to connect as many devices as possible:
- Powerline Ethernet – Even if your home doesn't have network cabling built in, there is another kind of wiring that it's guaranteed to have: electrical cables. You can use your home's convenient wall outlets to network your devices together with powerline ethernet adapters, which transmit data via the electrical lines you already have. Modern versions of this technology feature throughput that can go up to 1Gbps, and you can network up to 8 devices in total. In some older homes, you could encounter degraded performance, but in most cases, these units are more than enough for all but the most demanding data applications.
- MoCA or DECA Adapters – Another kind of cabling that most homes have is the coax wiring that connects televisions to outdoor antennas or cable TV services. Those wires can also be used to create a fast, plug-and-play home network. To do it, you will need MoCA or DECA adapters, depending on the cable service that will be sharing the coax lines in the home. In general, most cable companies now support MoCA, which can provide networking speeds up to 1Gbps while coexisting with cable or OTA television signals. DECA adapters are built to work with satellite TV providers, and although they top out at 250Mbps throughput, they're much cheaper and still provide enough bandwidth to handle the network load generated by things like smart TVs, gaming systems, and set-top boxes (Roku, etc).
The best part of these options is that they also will allow you to do another very important thing: expand the reach of your Wi-Fi network, and we'll get to that below.
Enhancing Wi-Fi Coverage
Once the wired portion of the home network is squared away, it's time to address the most common problem faced by internet-connected households, which is spotty Wi-Fi signal coverage. To get started, you can tune your router's settings to extend the range and quality of your home's Wi-Fi coverage. For situations when that's not enough, though, you can turn to some additional options. They are:
- Using Wi-Fi Repeaters – As their name would suggest, a Wi-Fi repeater takes your existing Wi-Fi signal (when placed near the edge of its' range) and repeats it to extend coverage. These devices work well enough for general web browsing, but they also halve the network's bandwidth because they reserve half of their capacity to communicate with the Wi-Fi base and the other half to serve clients. That means they're not going to be winning any awards for speed anytime soon.
- Employ Mesh Networking – A mesh network uses multiple Wi-Fi access points that communicate with one another on a separate frequency than the one used to serve clients. In a way, they're like repeaters with two wireless radios instead of one. That eliminates the throughput problem common to repeaters, but it adds more frequency congestion in and around your home. If you live in a dense network environment (lots of neighboring Wi-Fi networks), that could lead to some speed issues, too.
- MoCA Wireless Access Points – As mentioned above, you can also use MoCA to extend the range of your wireless network. Several manufacturers make wireless access points that accept MoCA connections back to your main router (either straight into a MoCA-enabled cable modem, or via an adapter). Right now, the fastest of them you'll find are 802.11ac or Wi-Fi 5, but with coax providing the backhaul, they'll still be faster than most mesh networks, and you can add as many as you have coax jacks in your home (up to 16 MoCA devices in total).
A Home Network That Flies
At this point, you will have accomplished several things. You should have an internet service package that has more than enough capacity to meet your needs. You should have a high-speed Wi-Fi router with enough wired connections to serve as many of your fixed devices as you can reach with ethernet, powerline, or MoCA adapters. You should also have a solution in place that makes sure that your Wi-Fi network offers perfect coverage with no dead spots all over your home. Together, those are the makings of a home network that can handle anything you have to throw at it, and that will be the envy of your friends and neighbors. If you've done things right, you should have also long forgotten how excited you were about the arrival of 5G cellular coverage – with the network you just built you may never leave your house again!
© 2019 Andrej Kovacevic