Networking Your Home: How and Why | by Citizen Upgrade

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A series of articles on building and managing a home network

Router / Switch
Stephen Phillips — Hostreviews.co.uk on Unsplash

I’m a software engineer by trade and a tinkerer at home. I’m not an IT professional, but I’ve spent much of my professional and hobby life “IT adjacent”. In this series of articles, I’m going to walk through the how’s and why’s of building a (wired and wireless) network in my home. Along the way, I’ll share what I’ve learned about the process, my successes, and my failures. Hopefully, this will serve as a good introduction to home networking and a guide to the costs and benefits.

In the era of remote work, the first answer to this question is obvious: productivity. A home network is the first and last leg of communication with our colleagues and workplaces. We need a network connection we can count on, functional speed, and easy ways to boost our productivity … either for our own satisfaction or to help make the point to our boss that we should continue to work from home in the future.

Personally, there is nothing more frustrating to me than when my computer or network aren’t working properly. I’m a very mellow person, but routinely dropped file uploads or computer freezes are enough to have me cursing out loud.

Screaming into hands in front of computer
Image Credit: Business photo created by wirestock — www.freepik.com

As a software engineer, a reliable network has become far more important for me. In ages past, you would write your code on a local machine and compile it on that machine. Maybe you’d even test it on that machine. You needed a powerhouse of a computer, but not much else.

Today’s work entails downloading libraries, developing APIs, remote building and deployment to servers, and even remote test servers. I have colleagues who work full time from Google Chromebooks, which are barely more than a network connection wrapped in a tablet.

A high-speed, reliable home network gives the flexibility to work from anywhere in and around your home (my back deck in the summer is a sublime place to zone out to some code writing). It might even be faster and more stable than your office connection that you’re sharing with dozens or hundreds of others.

And what a home network can do for work, it can also do for leisure.

Many people like to tinker with home automation, try IT and software projects at home, stream entertainment to their computers or phones, or even just surf the web without interruption. Having a stable home network is similar to having electrical outlets in every room. It enables you the freedom and flexibility to do what you want, wherever you want, wherever you want.

“A stable home network enables you the freedom and flexibility to do what you want, wherever you want, wherever you want.”

For me, the major impetus for this project is that I’m about to build out my unfinished basement. Before the walls and ceilings are finished, I have easier access to many spaces where I can run wires. This is a project I’ve been wanting to get to for a while, but the window to do it the easy way will close if I don’t get started.

Beyond the work from home angle, which is important, I also am definitely one of those who tinkers. I run a media and over-the-air tv server in my house that lets us stream shows over our network to any device in the house. I test out a lot of my website ideas and other projects at home. I also do the odd software consulting and programming side gig from home as well.

And that’s just my own network usage. My family also has their own needs that our network needs to support. It’s time to build a network into this house.

I’ll skip over most of the oddly political debate in the US about regional monopolies, government subsidies, rural availability, and classification of “broadband”. That’s all very important, but not necessary to discuss here.

The first thing you need (and probably already have) is an Internet Service Provider (ISP) giving you connection to the internet over a Wide Area Network (WAN). In short, you need an internet company to give you access to the internet, whether that’s over 5G, cable, fiber, or other methods.

While most of us don’t have much choice in this provider, we often get at least some choice in the download or upload speeds. So how much do you need? That’s actually very subjective, and the only “complete” answer is “you’ll know when you don’t have enough.”

Kid using laptop in bed
Ludovic Toinel on Unsplash

A rule of thumb I like to use, especially in these days of high definition video conferencing, is that most people will do well with at least 10 Mbps per person. Though 20 Mbps or more per person will be more comfortable.

Mbps is a common measure of speed. It stands for Megabits per second, and is often confused with Megabytes. We talk about storage and file sizes in Megabytes and Gigabytes, but speed in Megabits and Gigabits. A Megabyte would be 8 Megabits (and a Gigabyte would be 8 Gigabits). If you have a file that is 100 Megabytes in size, and a 100 Mbps speed network, it would take you approximately 8 seconds to transfer that file.

How do we make an informed guess about the speed we need? Start with what you use your internet for.

  • Netflix (and other streaming services) recommends 5 Mbps to watch HD content and 25 Mbps for 4k Ultra HD.
  • Video conferencing often recommends 2 Mbps to 5 Mbps.
  • Gaming frequently doesn’t take much bandwidth, but add in another 1 to 3 Mbps for multiplayer games, especially if you chat during the game.
  • Internet surfing doesn’t “need” much, but 10 Mbps per device surfing the internet is comfortable, and 20 Mbps or more is much nicer.
  • File sharing or downloading is trickier to estimate because you certainly won’t get your maximum speeds to most places on the internet, but you’ll want another 5 Mbps to 20 Mbps available if you routinely download or upload large files.

Now, add up all the things you do at the same time. Do you surf the internet on your phone while attending your video conference and have Netflix streaming in the background? You alone probably want 15 to 30 Mbps of download speed. If there are other people in your household, add their usage up as well.

Finally, keep in mind that most ISPs only talk about download speeds. Your upload speeds matter when it comes to sharing files, sending video (on a conference or on Twitch or other services), and if you’re a tinkerer sharing web based services outside your house. To use my own household of three as an example, I find that once we surpass 80 Mbps of available download speed, we don’t notice a big difference with faster speeds (most of the time). However, being stuck at 4 to 7 Mbps upload speeds, we definitely notice if we all jump on video conferences or are sharing files back to the office.

Some of this can be made easier with “traffic shaping”, which lets you prioritize how your bandwidth is used within your network, giving up file upload speed for higher quality video conferencing, for example. We’ll get to that in another article. For now, my final word on speed is simply this: figure out what you need, then buy a bit more if you can afford it.

The answer is to build your network to use both. Wifi is pretty amazing, and if set up well, is more than enough for most users. Ethernet shines when you need a high speed local connection (like video streaming from a local server), a very stable connection to the internet, or when you’re in an area that has many wifi broadcasters (many neighborhoods and apartment complexes), crowding the airwaves and reducing your possible speeds.

WiFi Access Point
Compare Fibre on Unsplash

Your ability to use ethernet is likely going to be dictated by your home situation, however. If you can’t get into the walls to run cables, you might find the best setup is to have your main internet user co-located with your ISP connection. In other words: set up your primary device next to your router.

For example, if you’re working from home and do a lot of file sharing or video conferencing, perhaps you want to work from an ethernet cable connection, breaking off to the couch with your laptop to use wifi when you’re not doing those network-intensive tasks. If your work (or gaming) doesn’t require high network throughput and low latency, maybe you want your TV to be set up next to the router so it can be hard wired to the internet. That way you can stream those sweet 4k movies without any buffering.

In the next three articles in this series, I’ll describe exactly how I’m routing my cables for ethernet, how to set up the network itself, and how I’m building out my wifi for whole-house high-speed coverage.

For now, it is important to know that direct ethernet connections are going to be faster and lower in latency than wireless connections, which means both faster to download and faster to connect to things. For devices wired into my local network (in my home), I can get 1 Gigabit per second of speed. On my wifi network, I can usually manage 300 Mbps or more. Both are far faster than my ISP connection (sadly), so both work great for anything outside my network. Putting several devices on the ethernet network, like the TVs streaming content from the HD antenna and from my video server, gives those high-use devices more consistent access and means my wifi network is less crowded with data. That means everybody’s phones and laptops and tablets remain fast and low latency as well.

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