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Working from home: Networks for beginners

Working from home means we need better domestic data networks. That way you can Zoom with colleague while others watch Netflix or give the Playstation a workout. Here’s what you need to know before you upgrade.

Basics

Before we get down to details, some basics. If you have a UFB fibre connection, this enters your house at something called the Optical Network Terminal. You may also hear people call it an ONT.

Most of the time, the ONT connects direct to your home Wi-fi router.

Chorus ONT
A Chorus Optical Network Terminal

If you have copper broadband, then you need a modem and a Wi-fi router, although these days the two devices often sit in the same box.

Fixed wireless broadband users have a box which may be called a modem, router or something similar.

A router is a specialised computer that switches data to and from circuits. Some people call them switches. Typically there will be one incoming port and four outgoing ports.

They all use something called Ethernet, which is a 40-year-old wire network technology. Ethernet is reliable and can run at speeds from a few megabits per second up to 400 gigabits per second.

Today’s home routers also offer Wi-fi. This is a wireless networking technology. It’s what most people use most of the time.

Wi-fi can be fiddly to get going at first, but once working tends to be the easiest way to move data around the house. As we shall see, Wi-fi is great, but has limitations.

Wired networks are best

If you can use wired networks at home, do so. At a minimum this means a direct cable from your home router to your TV. If you have shared data storage connect that to your router with a cable too.

Ideally you’d connect a shared printed direct to your router using an Ethernet cable. That tends to be awkward given that most people chose to have their Onts and routers next to the TV, which is often not the best place for a printer.

Wire is fast

Wires will always give you better speeds and more reliable connections.

Modern home routers often, but not always, offer gigabit Ethernet. Some might only have a single gigabit port with the rest running at 100Mbps. Either of these will be more than enough to get data from your fibre connection to your TV.

Using wire connections is even more important if you have a gigabit fibre internet connection: see below.

Wired networks may offer the best performance, but there’s more to networking than raw speed. Sometimes a slower connection is the better option.

Ethernet

Ethernet comes with a couple of catches. First, running Ethernet around the house isn’t easy or cheap.

Paying someone else to do the wiring job can be expensive, although it can be wiser in the long term if that’s what you really need. In truth, you can almost always get away without going that far.

The second catch is that Ethernet may often be less help than you’d think. That’s because a lot of modern devices don’t use it. Your tablet and phone certainly won’t come with an Ethernet port.

Many modern printers made for homes and home offices don’t have Ethernet. Which is handy as it means you can put them where they are less disruptive.

So, like it or not, Wi-fi will have to do a lot of your home network heavy lifting.

Gigabit broadband, slowcoach Wi-fi

The problem with Wi-fi at the moment is that most home wireless networks can’t run at speeds faster than about 500Mbps.

That is if you are lucky. Typically you’ll see slower speeds.

To make matters worse, everything connected to Wi-fi shares the same bandwidth. What’s more, Wi-fi doesn’t travel too well through solid objects.

Wi-fi signals can usually get through the plasterboard walls in New Zealand house. Yet performance can drop off dramatically the further you are from the router or the more solid material there is between you and the router.

It’s not unusual for home network speeds to drop below 100mbps. Which is disappointing if you have a gigabit broadband plan.

Given the number of phones, tablets, computers, games consoles and other kit in a modern house, your devices might only get tens of megabits per second each.

The good news is that not everything uses the bandwidth at the same time.

Which means if you connect to, say, Speedtest, from a home computer connected to gigabit fibre but linked to your broadband port via Wi-fi and nothing else is running you might see speeds of 300Mbps to 400Mbps on a good day. Some connections will be slower.

One way to reduce congestion is to use a mesh network. These spread the wireless signals around

Wi-fi 6 will fix some of this

There’s a new version of Wi-fi that promises to fix some of these problems. Wi-fi 6, or 802.11ax as it is sometimes known, promises faster speeds, less congestion and less pressure on device batteries.

You need to be careful reading specifications for Wi-fi router devices. Read the marketing material for a router using the older Wi-fi 5 standard and you might see a claim it runs at 3Gbps.

This will be a theoretical maximum speed. You will never see anything like that. In reality individual device speeds top out at around 500Mbps.

A Wi-fi 6 router might say 10Gbps on the box. In practice you may only see a small speed increase if you connect a Wi-fi 6 equipped laptop to a Wi-fi 6 router when compared to Wi-fi 5 speeds.

Although there may be a bigger speed jump.

If you think this language sounds like hedging, it is. Like anything to do with wireless communication networks, speed depends on a number of factors. You may not be able to control all of them.

Congestion

While you should see minor, yet noticeable speed improvements with Wi-fi 6 on individual devices, that isn’t the technology’s main goal.

Wi-fi 6 is more about improving network performance when there are lots of devices connected. It does a better job of managing congestion.

As more and more devices connect to the network, congestion gets worse leaving less headroom for each individual connection. Wi-fi 6 lets a router communicate with more devices at the same time.

Security is the other advantage Wi-fi 6 has over Wi-fi 5. It uses a security protocol called WPA3 that makes it even harder for hackers to guess passwords.

Getting to Wi-fi 6

This all sounds great, but there is one huge drawback to Wi-fi 6. It isn’t a simple software upgrade, it is all about hardware.

To get its benefits you will not only need a Wi-fi 6 router, but you will also need new Wi-fi 6 equipped devices.

A new Wi-fi modem might be a few hundred dollars. New everything else will run to thousands.

Wi-fi 6 equipped devices are only now coming on to the market. Apple’s latest iPad Pro models have Wi-fi 6. At the time of writing no Apple Mac models do.

In fact, you will struggle to find Wi-fi 6 devices in general. When I checked I managed to find one new Dell laptop and one HP laptop with Wi-fi 6 support. If there are Wi-Fi 6 TVs or smart home devices they have yet to be announced in New Zealand.

This means unless you have one or more Wi-Fi 6 devices, it is pointless upgrading your router.

One last point. Wi-fi 6 delivers screaming performance when you have a mesh router using the technology. They are expensive at the time of writing, New Zealand prices start at around $1000, but they can flood your home with fast wireless.

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