There’s no sense hiding away from the fact that the Internet has become a very important part of our lives. It’s only been mainstream within the last 25 years or so, but it now dominates our lives and enhances our ability to communicate and perform many day-to-day functions.
The next stage of the Internet’s development is the “Internet of Things”. This is a term that, in simple terms, means that a number of common household devices that need Internet access is increasing. This can range to more luxury things like fridges, washing machines and televisions to more common things like security cameras and smart speakers. With the rise in smartphones, there has also been a rise in personal devices that need an internet connection.
These factors have got people considering how to improve the network connectivity in their homes to try and get the best coverage across their entire house. This can quickly become a confusing array of options and it can be hard to choose what is right for your particular situation. I hope that by clarifying what is available it might point you in the direction of choosing the best equipment for your situation.
By far, this is the simplest option. A single router setup is where you have a single access point to the Internet and everything connects to this one device.
This is essentially what most people start out with, as it has a certain simplicity that makes it easy to get your head around. There’s nothing complicated about it at all. In saying that, it does come with a few limitations.
The first is network coverage if you rely on wifi. It is becoming common for network devices to offer wifi on two different frequencies – 2.4ghz and 5ghz. The 5ghz band offers substantially more bandwidth, though the higher frequency makes it more easily thwarted by thick walls. The 2.4ghz band offers less bandwidth, but tends to penetrate walls better and is often still usable over longer distances. This can cause problems where devices that need the higher bandwidth of the 5ghz band might not be usable across the whole house.
This means that a single router option is really only a good option in a smaller home, or when you need internet access over a small physical distance. You can use ethernet cabling to connect devices via physical cable which goes some way to compensate for this, but with more people preferring the convenience of wifi this is sometimes not an ideal situation.
Ethernet over Power
Not to be confused with Power over Ethernet, Ethernet over power is becoming a more common option for those devices that you want to have connected via cable. The concept is fairly simple, they simply use the existing power cabling in your house as a network cable, meaning you don’t have to install as much additional cabling. This makes them a common option for instance in a rental property where you can’t install your own cabling in the walls and don’t necessarily want cables draped all along your skirting boards.
They do have a few limitations. If you’re connecting devices across different power circuits, performance can often suffer. There are workarounds for this, but they require a lot of careful planning and sometimes require putting devices like network switches in locations that are not necessarily convenient.
There are also situations, for instance connecting adapters to some extension cause or for circuits protected by RCD devices, that hinders performance even more or even stops them working entirely.
This often means that a lot of planning is required to get the best performance out of these networks. They can work well if things are running on the same circuit, so could be a great option if you have a number of devices in the one room you want to hook up with a minimum of/ fuss, but more complex situations can sometimes be more hassle than they’re worth to plan out and build. In more complex situations, I would definitely look at other options first to avoid having to plan around the issues that more complex installations can cause.
Professionally Installed Ethernet
If you are primarily using devices that can be connected via cable, this can be the next step up from Ethernet over Power. This is where you have a professional cabler install ethernet points around your house at locations where you need them for devices. These cables run through the walls and will terminate at a network switch that’s hidden away somewhere out of sight, for instance in a garage or other suitably convenient location.
This does have the advantage of better reliability than Ethernet over Power, and often faster Ethernet speeds which makes it a better option for higher-bandwidth applications.
The downsides to this approach is that, because the installation is a bit more permanent, it requires a bit more planning to work out how many ethernet points you’ll need in each location. Many areas also require this cabling to be done by someone with the appropriate licenses, so it can be a fairly expensive option.
Finally, if you’re in a rental property, going down this route can often require a very accommodating landlord as it will require changes to the property. Some landlords who may not be up to speed on technology may be less inclined to let you run this cabling through the wall.
Mesh networks are more geared towards wifi users. There are a number of different systems, but they work on the same principle. There are a number of devices that you can strategically place around your home and they act as repeaters, effectively amplifying the signal and extending your wifi range. When you’re going out range of your main router, your devices then connect to one of the repeaters.
The advantage is that you do get additional wifi range, which is great if you are in a larger property or have a property with thicker walls that cause interference with wifi signals.
They do have a few disadvantages. For those that work on the 2.4ghz band, you only have a limited number of wifi channels and you will often need two channels to properly act as a repeater. This can sometimes cause problems in areas where there are a lot of other wireless access points nearby. This situation requires a lot of planning to avoid problems with interference., particularly with neighbours wifi access points. A useful tip is to grab your phone and install a wifi analyzer app onto it. You can then use it to see what channels are in use in each location that you plan to install a device, which can help guide you towards minimising interference.
Even though the concept is the same between different systems, they are also fairly proprietary. You won’t always be able to mix-and-match hardware between different manufacturers, or sometimes different systems from the main manufacturer. This can sometimes hinder upgrades down the line, so it’s important to get the network right for any changes you might need to make. If you later require extra nodes and a system is no longer being sold, you may sometimes need to replace the entire system.
Wifi Access Points with Ethernet Backhaul
Wifi Access Points with Ethernet Backhaul is an upgrade over a standard mesh network. Whereas a standard mesh network acts as a repeater, where it repeats a signal on a different wifi channel, this veraiob6pushes it out over ethernet instead.
There are a few advantages of this approach. This can avoid some of the problems with performance caused by a limited number of wifi channels, particularly if you’re lucky enough to be able to use 2.5 gigabit backhaul, you can also use ethernet to place the access points farther apart. This can be great if you have a large area to cover as it can simplify installation and configuration.
This sort of setup is usually the realm of more professional level devices rather than prosumer level devices. The disadvantage is it might be a little more work to configure it, and the other problems with installing permanent cabling. But the upsides will be more capable hardware and a tendency to ‘just work’ once you are able to set it up.
This whole field can be really quite confusing. With the right combination of hardware you can usually find a a situation that works for you. Unfortunately, many options still require a little bit of technical knowledge to really get the most out of them.
At the very least, you’ll know the pros and cons of each arrangement. While this won’t necessarily help you set up each configuration, it should at least give you something to think about when it comes to making a decision on what type of system would work best for your situation.
These types of technologies will probably require a few more generations to get to the point that they are truly idiot-proof. In the meantime, using this information you should at least be able to approach sometime and make an informed decision about what type of system would work best for your situation.