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Tips for setting up a home network

COVID-19 has compelled home-based workers to learn more about their home networks, such as wired and wireless connections, quality of service and, of course, security.

A broadband connection is the norm in most homes as many people rely on the customer premises equipment that their internet service provider delivers for connectivity to the internet. For most homes, this setup was adequate for setting up a home network.

But the COVID-19 pandemic changed internet dynamics. Now, more people are required to work from home, and students need to study online from home. Suddenly, the mediocre capabilities of the ISP's CPE needed enhancing, and more users started realizing they need to strengthen their home networks in order to work from home and optimize distance learning for their children.

What are the network components?

When setting up a home network, consider the following components:

  • an access device, typically a cable or asymmetric digital subscriber line modem;
  • a router for directing traffic;
  • a switch for connecting wired clients; and
  • an access point (AP) for connecting wireless clients.

Some ISPs will provide a single CPE device to cover all these network functions. Other providers, however, may not, which requires users to build out their networks. An ISP can set up a home network in multiple ways. Depending on what your ISP offers, you may need to buy additional equipment to extend access to more devices.

ISP home network devices

Wired vs. wireless devices

Generally speaking, wired devices provide better performance and quality of service (QoS) than wireless devices, but that upside comes with a potentially higher cost and usually less flexibility. Wireless devices can be moved around and used almost anywhere but perhaps provide lower or spottier performance, especially when trying to access large files or participate in video conference calls.

In your work-from-home environment, if you don't need to change locations frequently, you should use a wired Ethernet connector, even with a notebook. But, if you can't use a wired connection and the notebook's integrated adapter is older, then replacing it with a newer USB Wi-Fi adapter may provide better overall performance.

USB Wi-Fi adapter
A USB Wi-Fi adapter could provide better performance for wireless devices at home.

Connecting wired client devices

Connecting wired devices is straightforward. Use an RJ-45 cable to plug the device into the switch or router. Most routers support Gigabit Ethernet, so be sure to use Cat5E, Cat6 or Cat6A cables for the best performance. Notebooks can be connected via USB Ethernet adapters, providing better performance over wireless. Multiple switches can cascade throughout the home, and multiple wireless APs can be connected to switches.

home network diagram

Connecting wireless client devices

You'll need Wi-Fi capability from your ISP's all-in-one CPE or an added Wi-Fi AP in order to connect Wi-Fi clients. Be sure to set a Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) password to ensure that others cannot access and potentially compromise your network. Wi-Fi has different generations. So, find the latest version that your router supports, and make sure that notebooks have the same version or as close as possible for the best performance. A USB adapter is the easiest way to update if needed.

How to extend home network range

Often, the CPE is in a main living area, like a family room, perhaps far away from the home office. In this case, a wired Ethernet connection can be extended via a powerline adapter -- which uses your home's electrical wiring -- with Multimedia over Coax Alliance cables or cable TV cables or wirelessly through a mesh system, like AmpliFi, Eero or Linksys Velop. Each extension capability has its pros and cons. Ethernet cabling is always the best option, but it carries a higher price tag.

Wireless extenders are generally a poor idea as they seem to provide better performance but simply mask the performance problems, giving the illusion of a stronger connection without ever really providing much advantage.

home network ranges

Protecting your home network

Whether you are using your ISP's routing capabilities or buying your own router, securing your network is a vital step when setting up a home network. This means setting up user passwords on devices and changing all default passwords on any device accessing or controlling the network. Also, make sure the firewall is active on the router. And check to ensure that remote access to the cable modem and router is disabled unless you truly need to access resources from outside the network. Lastly, a strong WPA2 password is a must for any wireless components on your network.

Setting the best network performance

A final consideration for building a network is assigning QoS for your network, which is typically done in the router. QoS enables certain packets to have a higher priority than others based on their type. In this step, you can assign a higher priority for video or VoIP traffic so that a game or large download does not affect video conference call quality. Every router has a different method for setting QoS, so consult your manual.

This was last published in June 2020

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