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Working from home may mean you need a 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 is best

If you can use wired network connections 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 communications, 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.

Regional economic development minister Shane Jones dipped into the Provincial Growth Fund to find $2 million for five more digital hubs.

The hubs provide free wi-fi, co-working space and advice for people outside the main centres.

New hubs will be at Gisborne, Katikati, Te Kateretanga O Kura-Hau-Pō in Horowhenua, Woodville and Murupara. They will join eight other hubs already planned for Northland, West Coast, Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay and Manawatū-Whanganui-Horowhenua.

This is a sound idea that extends the idea of rural broadband. It’s one thing to deliver connectivity to the bush, it’s another thing to provide hubs where casual users can experience or use the technology.

Some rural users may struggle to pay for an account at first, but need just enough free connectivity to get started. Others may want to try before they buy.

Providing advice is crucial for people who have been underserved with technology in the past. Using broadband may seem straightforward to most users, but it can be daunting for people on the wrong side of the digital divide.

As Jones says: “Improving digital connectivity was flagged as a key area of investment for the PGF as it is a catalyst for economic development and wellbeing, lifts productivity and supports the other investments government is making in the regions through the Provincial Growth Fund.”

There’s a strong case for a similar initiative in less well off parts of urban centres. That money won’t come from the PGF, but now government has accepted the principle of building hubs it shouldn’t be too hard to organise.

Emirates OnAir Wi-fi

While one trip is not enough to write a definitive review of Emirates OnAir, the airline’s inflight Wi-fi service, I’m not masochistic enough to put myself through the experience a second time.

So this is an anecdote, not a formal review.

My earlier plan to work at the airport business lounge was foiled by overcrowding. Plan B was to write, fact-check, polish and file my stories from my seat as Emirates flight EK448 made its way from Dubai to Auckland.

The plane has in-flight Wi-fi, so it should have been practical. It’s a 15 hour flight, which, on paper at least, left plenty of time to write and rest.

That’s not how things worked out.

Options

Emirates offers three in-flight Wi-fi options on Airbus A380 flights. There’s a free 20MB download. 150MB costs US$10, 500MB costs US$16.

The 20MB free option wasn’t even enough to download the email that arrived in the eight hours since I last connected. That’s because some PR companies insist on sending journalists material as PDFs or Word documents with large embedded logos or other images.

I didn’t plan to work all through the flight so I opted for 150MB. As we shall see, this turned out to be a wise choice.

On my flight the Wi-Fi wasn’t turned on until almost an hour after take-off. By then the cabin crew were starting to serve a meal, so I waited until that was over; maybe two hours into the journey.

Simple

Connecting, logging-in and paying was straightforward enough. Two days after landing the payment still doesn’t show up in my bank account so I can’t confirm there were no price surprises. If it does show up I’ll let you know how it went.

The rest of this story is a tale of woe. Here at home I have a 1 gbps fibre connection. When I’m on the move I use 4G mobile which can mean anything between about 20 and 100 mbps. I’m old enough to remember 1 mbps ADSL and even dial-up, which during its last phase could connected at 56 kbps.

Emirates’ OnAir Wi-fi service was slower than dial-up. Much slower. It was so slow that I couldn’t even load many webpages before they timed out. This included Speedtest. Mail was slow. I normally use Apple’s Mail app. I tried to use Gmail, but, again, the page couldn’t load before timing out.

Dreadful benchmark

The best benchmark I can give you is the time it took to file my first story. I use iA Writer, which produces a text file as output. The story was 5050 characters long. The file is 5k. That is five kilobytes. In other words, bugger all text. It took Emirates OnAir 27 minutes to transfer this file. That’s about three bytes per second.

To put this in perspective. Emirates OnAir sent my story at 33 words per minute. A Morse Code operator might transmit at around 13 words per minute.

It is like all the passengers on the flight are sharing a single dial-up internet connection.

That’s not the whole story. The OnAir service cut out entirely for large sections of the flight. This is to be expected. After all, Emirates publishes a map showing areas where the satellites servicing OnAir don’t operate. However, the flight didn’t pass through these areas.

Not a good look for Emirates OnAir

There’s nothing new or original when it comes to whinging about in-flight Wi-fi. The services are usually slow, poor quality and ridiculously overpriced. My point here is that it is so bad, it’s not remotely fit for purpose. Fact checking was near impossible. Sending email questions and getting answers was painfully slow.

In the end it took nine hours to do a job that might normally take me 90 minutes.

One last point. Even though I was using OnAir full tilt for about nine hours of a 15 hour journey, I only used about a third of the 150MB data allowance. This means there’s no point buying the 500MB plan, you simply can’t use it.

Like it says at the start, this is based on a single experience, it’s not a definitive review. Even so, Emirates OnAir is, at best, a marginal proposition.

D-Link’s NZ$600 Covr attempts to help home users fill Wi-Fi blackspots. I say attempts because the results are hit and miss. Most of the time it misses.

The kit first arrived at Castle Bennett in May. I tried and failed to make it work at the time. This week I tried it again and got it to work. Yet, as we shall see, it disappointed.

In the last few days I’ve been busy revisiting and retesting all the routers and related kit that I have to hand.

Chorus installed my fibre this week. I’ve a gigabit line. So for the first time Wi-Fi is my speed bottle neck. There’s a slew of products which, on paper, promise Wi-Fi speeds greater than 1 Gbps. None of them come close.

More about that in another post. Let’s get back to Covr.

During testing it worked as expected for a fleeting moment. The system was unable to create a stable network for more than 20 minutes at a time. When it did manage to work, the performance was erratic and poor.

Covr is an unwelcome reminder of the bad old days of home networking.

If you were there you’ll know what I mean. In those days a new piece of software could make a network grind to a halt. At times it felt like a sneeze could put a home network out of action for hours.

D-Link Covr home wireless mesh network nodes

Mesh network

D-Link’s Covr is an example of something known as a mesh network. This is a way of spreading Wi-Fi signals over a larger area than a single wireless router might cover. In effect you have three connected wireless routers, but to the user they look and act like a single router.

Mesh networks are common in offices, campuses and large buildings.

You might want a mesh network if you have a large home or the house is laid out in a way that means the Wi-Fi isn’t strong enough in places where you want it. Say you’ve had fibre installed next to your TV at one end of the house and a kid’s bedroom at the other end gets a poor Wi-Fi signal.

There are other consumer mesh network products on the market. Most seem to suffer from similar flaws. This suggests to me this is because the technology isn’t quite ready for everyday users.

If Apple hadn’t lost interest in home networking, mesh technology would be ripe for that company’s attention. Apple has a knack for packaging unpolished technologies in a consumer friendly ready-to-use format.

Not so simple

In the Covr box are three wireless access points. One is the main unit. D-link calls them nodes.

Each node has a power supply. And that means it needs a power socket. The power cables are about a metre long, so you’re restricted to putting nodes near power outlets. There is a rival home network technology that uses power outlets. You might want to consider that instead of Covr.

The box also holds a single Ethernet cable and, for the aesthetically minded, alternative colour fascia plates for the access points. Presumably this is to make sure your nodes don’t clash with the curtains. I find this silly because even if you change the cover the nodes still stand out.

There’s also a sheet of paper optimistically labelled Simple Setup Guide. You can work through this, or you can download an iOS or Android app that walks you through the process.

As we shall see, the app didn’t work for me. Which meant I had to return to the paper instructions.

Covr app

The app tells you to connect the main node to a power supply and to turn off your modem. You then connect the access point to the modem with the Ethernet cable and switch everything on. Once everything is running, you are then asked to log into the Covr wireless router from your phone.

In my case this simply did not happen. The iPhone could find the router, but it couldn’t log on. Nor could my small iPad Pro or my other iPad Pro. I then tried to do this all over again with an Android phone. Once more, there was nothing. Four attempts with four devices didn’t work. Not a sausage.

When I first tried Covr I gave up in frustration at this point. This time around I attempted to manually log-in to the router from a desktop Mac. It worked. I managed to get into the web-based control panel.

Part of the panel shows a map of the network. If one of the connections, and this includes the connection from the main node to the internet, is broken it shows up in red. At this point things appeared to be running fine. The next task is to configure the secondary nodes.

Secondary nodes

In some ways configuring secondary nodes is clever. As already mentioned, you have to find an extra power socket to do this. Given the master node needs to connect to a modem which needs to connect to the fibre ONT and all three need a power supply, you need four power points to configure Covr. I had to use a distribution board. There are other cables here, so it is a rats’ nest.

Once you have power, you then connect the secondary node to the main one using the Ethernet cable. After a few minutes the light changes colour. When it turns white, you’re configured.

At this point you can unplug, move the secondary node to a Wi-Fi blackspot and connect it by wireless back to the mothership. The light flashes orange then glows white when you can connect. You may need to move it about for a while until it turns white. Let’s hope all your Wi-Fi blackspots are in easy reach of a power socket.

A working wireless mesh?

At this point I had a working wireless mesh. Well almost. None of the mobile devices would connect. But I did have strong signals around the house and all the PCs in the house were able to connect.

After about 20 minutes of a working mesh network, the main Covr node lost its internet connection. I should point out that nothing had moved, there were no external events, no visible triggers.

Next the secondary nodes dropped off the mesh network. I spent an hour troubleshooting, but nothing I did changed things.

Eventually I decided to reboot everything and start once more from scratch. It took about an hour to get back to the same point with a working mesh. About an hour later it all fell apart again.

This was the pattern all day. Actually I’m not sure about that. I gave up the third time the network collapse. Life is too short. In the end I packed the Covr bits and pieces back in the box. It’s not for me.

Covr performance issues

During the brief interludes while things were humming, I tested the internet connection speed from the iMac. It was getting around 150 mbps up and down. This is less than half the usual connection speed through the main UFB modem and wireless router. Typically the iMac ‘sees’ 350 to 420 mbps. So the price of filling in Wi-Fi blackspot is a much slower connection.

It turns out poor performance is by design. Mesh networks in offices and factories have a separate channel to manage traffic between nodes. Covr uses the same Wi-Fi bandwidth that connects devices to the access points. In other words it shares the connection with your devices. This explains why we only saw half the usual connection speed.

I can’t recommend D-link’s Covr. It seems half-finished. There was a firmware update that I installed before testing, so the software is up-to-date.

Of course, you might have a different experience. The fact that none of the devices, other than the computer, would connect is a deal-breaker. For me the slow network speed is also a problem. I’d prefer to spend the NZ$600 asking price on a better quality wireless router and learn to live with any Wi-Fi black spots.

Ben Kepes writes about an infosec panic:

Bitglass, a company that is all about protecting organizational data, wanted to see the impacts of widespread use of public wi-fi, alongside the use of unsanctioned file sharing solutions…

…Bitglass’ threat research team tested two real-world scenarios—public wi-fi use and sharing of data from within a cloud app. The assumption being that the combination of public (and, one assumes, at-risk) wi-fi and cloud file sharing apps (shock, horror, cue the “cloud is risky” FUD) would deliver a double blow of cataclysmic risk.

Source: Public WiFi plus cloud file sharing: A recipe for InfoSec panic? « The Diversity Blog 

Kepes goes on to talk about his experience of using public wi-fi. He says he uses it a lot and never runs into trouble.

That makes sense. But it misses something. Kepes is motivated. He owns a business. He has enough experience, knowledge and sense to steer clear of obvious traps.

You, I and Kepes might be sensible. You can’t assume everyone using an enterprise computing app on a mobile device will be as careful or as savvy.

No amount of training or awareness programmes changes that.

Risky, not too risky

Organisations are at risk from careless use of public wi-fi. As Kepes points out the level of risk might not be high.

There is a simple way to deal with the risk. Build VPN functionality into every heavy-duty mobile enterprise app. That way that users have a secure, encrypted end-to-end link from their mobile device to the server handling their data.

VPNs are not expensive, they are not hard to build. They don’t impose much of a performance overhead.

Enterprise software companies can absorb the cost, a few cents per month, into their pricing model. It makes sense to guarantee security with an insurance policy against data being hijacked between a mobile device and the server.

Kepes’ point, is spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt undermines cloud computing. In general, cloud is more secure than older computing models. You might not expect cloud infrastructure vendors to address mobile access risks; it should be a priority for an enterprise SaaS business.