Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Whole House Internet

Ah, remember the days when an Internet connection meant plugging your phone line into your computer's modem port and you had to dial up and listen to the funny tones as the modems connected? And you could use the Internet in your home anywhere you had a phone line that you didn't mind tying up for hours on end?

Oh, and you probably only had one computer in your home. And maybe even only one phone line.

Needless to say, very few people would find that an acceptable way of life nowadays.

For the typical home, we want high-speed, always-on Internet access everywhere in our home -- and perhaps even outside, too. It's not unusual for people to want Internet access in their garden, on the patio, by the swimming pool, or even in the garage.

So how does one distribute Internet access throughout the home?

Now it's expected that high speed, always on Internet access will be available throughout one's home.

If you have a relatively new home (less than 10 years old), the builder probably installed what's called "structured wiring." This distributes many different types of wires throughout your home. These wires can be Coaxial (sometimes called "coax") which is used primarily for cable TV signals and standard four-conductor phone wire.

Other types include unshielded twisted pair (UTP), sometimes Cat 5, Cat5e, or Cat 6, depending on its rated speed (the bigger the number the faster the rated speed). UTP is also mistakenly called Ethernet cable. Although UTP can carry Ethernet signals, it's also used for analog phone signals and other applications.

The final type of cable that I sometime see is fiber optic. This delivers ultra high speeds, but frankly, is still largely unused to its capacity in most homes. Plus some of the equipment to work with fiber is still far more expensive than working with other types of cables.

My recommendation when people ask me about the technology for their home is to put in as many cables as they can reasonably expect, especially for networking and whole house audio and video. Either as part of that or in conjunction with installing lots of cables, use conduits that allow wires to easily be added when a new technology comes along that requires a new type of cable.

So, for people where their homes are fairly new, distributing Internet access to various parts of the home is pretty straightforward. Simply plug your computer into your Ethernet ports in your various rooms and you're off and running.

But what about the rest of us who don't have cabling throughout our homes? We really have three options:

First, string cables to wherever we need them. Depending on your home's configuration, this can be easy or hard. If you have attic and basement space and both are unfinished, it's not too difficult to run new cables to many locations. This is my first choice for both speed and reliability.

Second, go wireless. Install a wireless access point such as the Linksys WAP610N ($109.99). There are various wireless standards, each with its own letter. The most popular are A, B, G, and N. B and G are the most popular, but N is the newest and fastest. Look for a wireless access point that supports all three standards. Many routers include wireless capabilities.

The problem with wireless is that it doesn't like going through anything except air. Ceilings, walls, floors, refrigerators and distance all reduce the speed and reliability of wireless connections. So, if your wireless access point is in the basement, even being upstairs in the kitchen will degrade the signal noticeably.

Third, use your home's electrical wires for data. While we may not have structured wiring in our homes, we all have electrical wires in our homes. Networking companies have figured out a way to send Ethernet signals across our home wiring and it works quite well.

By using a technology dubbed Powerline, you can plug in a device to your Ethernet switch and then a wall socket. Plug a companion product elsewhere in your home and you have extended your Ethernet network in a reliable way. If you want to plug in a wireless access point in the remote room, you've avoided all of the walls and other interference that's inherent in wireless networks. A Powerline kit I've used is the Linksys PLK-300 ($124.99).

I've always been a fan of copper wire for its speed and security, but by combining wired and wireless technology, it's pretty easy to provide high-speed, always-on Internet access throughout your home.

From now on, may the only time you hear the sound of a squawking modem connecting be in the movies.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 15 September 2010.
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