This story was originally published on May 9, 2014. After encountering some trouble installing a new printer this morning (it was a bad network cable), I figured it was time to update and re-post, especially in light of all the new devices opened and connected during the holiday season.
So, you think the Internet is a magic thing that just works all the time? Think again.
One day a few years ago while enjoying an eleven-hour drive with my wife and our four children, one of the kids asked “why don’t we have wi-fi in the car?” Before I could even inhale, to begin the list of reasons why that is never going to happen, the child continued, “and don’t even tell me you don’t know how to make that happen.”
This got me thinking about the evolution of the Internet in our home and how my children really don’t know a world without completely reliable and fast information access, everywhere, all the time.
I will admit that our house is probably more wired than the average suburban domicile, but at the same time, the complaints about reliability, speed and connectivity that I hear constantly from others never seem to affect us. The reason our setup is as solid as I describe is a simple one… I have made a continual effort to keep things inline with the demands my family puts on it.
I’ll skip the whole AOL dial-up part of this story since it really doesn’t matter. When we first got an “always-on” connection (around 2001), it was as simple as one computer connected to a single cable modem. I’m betting you all started out pretty much the same way.
As time progressed, I added more gear to connect to more computers and then wireless. This was before iPads, iPods, iPhones, Netflix and Pandora. All we were doing was surfing the web and transacting email.
Our first real “smart” device was the original iPhone I got in December 2007. Before then we didn’t ask much of our home Internet, but in the years since, the explosion of devices connecting to home connections has been substantial.
As of January 2016, our connected device list is as follows:
- 1 iPhone 5
- 1 iPhone 5c
- 1 iPhone 6
- 1 Apple TV
- 1 Google Chromecast
- 1 Smart TV
- 4 iPod touches
- 2 iPads
- 1 Desktop computer
- 4 Laptop computers
- 1 wii
- 3 Nooks
- 1 Home Theatre Receiver
- 2 Bluray DVD Players
- 2 DirecTV Receivers
- 2 Network printers
- 1 Ooma VIOP telephone system
- 1 Network Attached Storage (NAS) device
Admittedly, we have a lot of stuff connected to other stuff and the outside world, but I doubt we have the most. The difference is that we have a network that can handle it.
Most houses have a combination modem/wireless router/switch that comes from the cable or DSL provider – and I am here to tell you, if you don’t know it already… that little box is not going to cut it. This device is all compromises and as a result does none of its jobs well.
The fact of the matter is that most households are demanding more of their data infrastructure than a typical office was supporting just a decade ago; and that office had closets full of equipment and people to support it.
I am not suggesting that you need to find an IT guy and drop thousands of dollars on little boxes with blinky lights, however a little basic understanding of the bits involved can go a long way to helping you help yourself to a better network and a whole lot less frustration.
For those in the know, you can skip this next section, but for those who have heard the terms, but don’t really know what each means, here is some straight talk that should clear things up:
Modem (cable or DSL) – Modem stands for MOdulator/DEModulator, but in practical terms it is the interface between your home and your Internet service provider (ISP). If you are paying a monthly “equipment fee,” you don’t have to. Look at whatever device your provider has supplied you with and Google it. You will find that you can purchase one for about 8-10 times the monthly fee. In month eleven you start saving. Service providers are required by law to allow you to use your own equipment. CLICK HERE to see a modem you could purchase and start saving today!
IP Address – IP stands for Internet Protocol and it is the language the entire Internet runs on. Your IP address is essentially the data phone number you never knew you had. Your IP Address is assigned to you, by your provider, via your modem. It is not always the same and every time you restart your modem or have a power failure it can change. If you want to know what your current IP address is, CLICK HERE. That’s right a bunch of numbers and periods that mean nothing to you. However, every website you go to knows your IP Address and every email you send has it embedded in the header. The Internet keeps track of everything.
Router – The “Air Traffic Controller” of the network. This is absolutely the most misunderstood part of every home Internet setup. The router takes that single IP address and essentially creates an entirely new Internet in your house. The router, using something called NAT (Network Address Translation) and DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) to take the single IP Address the world sees, and divides it into as many as 255 little pieces for all the devices in your house to use. Every device needs a unique IP Address, and you only have the one given to you by your ISP. HERE is a reliable workhorse of a router that is worth considering.
Think of it like this… the modem provides you with a data pipe, maybe three inches in diameter. The router takes that pipe and turns it into as many as 255 soda straws, one for each device to use. It only creates a straw if you ask it to (by connecting a device) so at any given time it might only be managing a few, but all home routers can (theoretically) handle 255. The size of the straws always add up to the size of the pipe, so the more straws the smaller each one is. One of the problems is that cheap equipment isn’t very good at cleaning up after itself (much like children), so every time you turn on your iPad it grabs a new straw, but doesn’t necessarily throw out the old one. Do you start to see trouble brewing?
Switch – I bet you don’t event think you own a switch, but if you have one of the all-in-one modem/router/wireless units with connectors on the back that look like big telephone jacks (they’re called RJ-45 Ethernet connectors BTW) then not only do you own a switch, you own two. If the router is air traffic control (that can get you in and out of a city, or in this case your house), then switches are more like the system of traffic lights inside that city. Wired connections are always better. Let me say that again…
Wired connections are always better!
So, if you can hook up your high-demand devices (like anything that connects to Netflix, Hulu, or a game console) using an Ethernet cable, will always get you a faster, more reliable connection. The wireless part of that unit is actually a switch too, just a wireless one, but like any system of roads and traffic lights, too many cars makes for slow going, especially if there are several abandoned on the streets.
Wireless Access Point – Everyone thinks all they need is a “wireless router” but as I have been saying, it is best to delegate separate tasks to devices well-suited to the job. By having a modem connected to a router and a switch to which you connect a wireless access point, you will have the flexibility to easily troubleshoot issues when the arise (and they will arise). HERE is a decent wireless access point that will not only cover your house, but probably your entire yard.
Given the very different jobs each of these units is responsible for, you can start to see why an all-in-one is probably bad at all of them. There are lots of other things you can get into with a home network and I haven’t even begun to touch on the subject of security, which is very important.
The bottom line is that we have all become very dependent on our Internet connection and the home network that connects us to it. From work to entertainment and managing a household, data has become as important as electricity or water.
I have searched for a simple, straightforward reference to note here, but I haven’t been able to find one that won’t confuse matters more. So, ask around, you’ll find someone to help you and in most cases they’ll be glad to do so, especially once you show them what you’re currently working with.
Do not go to Radio Shack or Best Buy looking for help… equipment sure, help no. Those guys only sell lies wrapped in ignorance. Think about it, if that 23-year old really knew about networking, would they be wearing the “blue shirt?”
Take the time to understand what you have and more importantly what you need. Almost all of you out there are running the network equivalent of a 1972 Chevy Vega and you’re driving it in rush hour traffic at 90 miles an hour.
Better to get yourself a Camry or an Accord before the whole thing craps out, while your kid is trying to do his homework at the same time you’re trying to catch up on Game of Thrones. Nah, that would never happen.
Copyright © 2016 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.