Home Networking 2 – WiFi versus hard lines

Here we discuss network design from the point of view of WiFi versus hard line links within the household.

Assumptions:

  1. I am a video gamer. Aside from casual and turn-based gaming, I occasionally flog away at trying to be good at any First Person Shooter or other Real Time video game, which means I need quick (reasonably high bandwidth), and quick-to-respond (reasonably low latency) networking.
  2. I also sometimes run gaming sessions on my home LAN. This means the links inside the LAN need to be fast (high bandwidth, low latency) and it also means that WiFi connections need to be quick and easy to set up and they need to remain reliably available.
  3. Otherwise, we do what counts as normal for a 2015 household with adult and animal householders: Lots of video streaming from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and maybe Vimeo, e-mail, Facetime/Skype, Facebook, maybe. Also audio, both streaming from servers internal to the network as well as from services like Songza and Spotify. Of these, it’s video and videoconferencing that put the most load on the network, followed by audio streaming and maybe Facebook (It’s a network hog, honestly).

First, for Internet links, you want to look at your Internet Service Provider. We use Comcast and are currently on the 100/10 plan, which means up to 100 Megabits per second downstream from the Internet to our router and up to 10 Megabits per second upstream from our router to the Internet. If you’re not sure you’re getting the speeds you’re paying for, do what I did. Connect a fast computer to the LAN side of your modem, make sure you’re connected to the Internet, and use some service like Ookla’s Speed Test to see what your real connection speed is as far as your router will ever see. Maybe run the test 3 to 10 times over a day, just to get a good average (while your neighbors variously swamp and vacate the trunk).

Geeky aside: Cable and some other services use local neighborhood-sized networks commonly called “trunks” which have a large total bandwidth shared among all households on the trunk. DSL sells line-by-line bandwidth per run or connection between households and the CO or Central Office. Bandwidth here is more a function of closeness to the CO and number of lines run and combined, or multiplexed, to create your total bandwidth. You can test DSL lines with Ookla too, but know what you’re testing. I’ve heard DSL lines get more variable due to environment (like rain or temperature or wind) rather than local bandwidth hogs.

Anyhow, if you find that your Speed Test is reporting speeds far below what you’re paying for, and doing so consistently, it may be a good time to reach out to support and tell them so. They’ll probably have you reboot your modem (power off, wait 30 seconds, turn back on, reconnect everything), test, and if your complaint is justified, they’ll send an Engineer around to make sure your wiring to the connection point is good, add line conditioners and so on.

It may be that your modem is bad (certainly that has happened to my network occasionally). If so, get a new one. I recommend buying rather than leasing. Your Internet Service Provider will have supported/compatible modems listed. Here’s the appropriate link for Comcast. For reference, I have the ARRIS / Motorola SB6121 SURFboard DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem

Now that you’ve got the network external to your home worked out, it’s time to talk turkey.

WiFi is undoubtedly convenient, you don’t have to run wires all over the place and it’s pretty fast. It’s not fast enough for video gaming. It’s okay for relatively low bandwidth video streaming within your home network. It’s not easy for consumer devices to handle too many (read 20 – 50) wireless devices. Also in a busy, techy neighborhood like mine, even with careful channel tuning and protocol configuration, your WiFi signal strength will quickly degrade over distance, and to some extent, WiFi signals bounce around in houses and get occluded by walls, or plumbing, or in-wall conductors (pipes, wiring, etc.).

One thing I paid for when I moved in was Cat 6A wiring, the newest standard, to almost every room in the house. The hub’s in my bedroom with the cable modem and the router, and a single Cat 6A cable links from there to each of the plates in each room of the house.

Now Cat 6A is madly fast for our current day and age. It’s rated, provisionally, for 10 Gigabits per second, or 102.4 times faster than my download (from the Internet to my router) speed through Comcast. And you can’t get 10 Gigabits per second consumer networking hardware. The cheapest I’ve seen is an 8-port unmanaged switch designed for a server rack from Netgear (remember that I got screwed by them recently) for about USD$850. Given what happened with Cat 5e, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the end Cat 6A goes faster than 10 Gigabits per second, but we’ll see.

Anyhow, I deliberately went completely overboard with the in-wall cabling because, to be honest, in-wall cabling is a pain in the ass, and you don’t want to do it or upgrade it very often. Also I outsourced it and got a deal that was significantly cheap, like only $10/link more than Cat 5, so I went Cat 6A. It’s backward compatible with other categories, so I knew the links would work with the 1 Gigabit per second switches I have.

I’m not saying you should do this, but what I am saying is that if you want some minor, infinitesimal chance of being over 30 or 40 and having a brilliant day playing Call of Duty on the Internet with the 9-12 year olds and want some small chance of beating one, you have to have a wired connection to your router from your gaming console or PC. And maybe you already have Cat5. That’s okay. But wired is, for these application, SO PROFOUNDLY BETTER than WiFi, well, you’ll just have to try it and see.

So, as I said before, WiFi’s going to struggle if, like me, you have WiFi household automation devices, WiFi tablets, WiFi laptops, and WiFi phones. Say you then add on WiFi-enabled entertainment devices like Roku or AppleTV and WiFi-enabled video game consoles like an XBox. Assume for a moderately priced consumer WiFi Access Point that it can handle 20 devices. You’re going to top that out if you have all WiFi all the time. So I recommend, with devices that aren’t moving around, like ones in your entertainment center, or your desktop PC or your printer that you get them on a hardwired network.

  1. Decide if you will run cables in the walls with snazzy wall plates and network sockets or if you’ll run them against baseboards and around doors and so on.
  2. Decide if you’ll outsource the work.
  3. Decide how fast you want the cables to be.
  4. Find out how much it’ll cost. If you’re doing this yourself, be sure to budget for:
    1. Cable category (5, 6, 7)
    2. Cable type (indoor, stranded, solid, plenum, etc.)
    3. Cable length
    4. Cable jacks and tools to crimp them on if necessary
    5. How many cables per run you’ll do (1, 2, 4)
      I recommend, here, doing one run per, unless you’re really hard core, and planning to put a switch on the far end to connect to multiple devices. For a home network an unmanaged switch (cheaper than managed) is probably just fine.
    6. Junction boxes
    7. Wall plates
    8. Keystone connectors
    9. Tools to make connections with keystone connectors
    10. Networking Switches
      Mine are 1 Gigabit per second switches, but the speed on the router’s ports is also 1 Gigabit per second and I believe all my devices top out at that rate, so despite the Cat 6A cables being able to go faster, the hardware is limiting my network to 1 Gigabit per second.
    11. Various patch cables (for making device-to-device or device-to-jack connections) or bulk cable and jacks and tools to make your own
    12. Testing equipment if you’re going to totally geek out and test the quality of the connections and cabling in addition to whether or not they just work
  5. Budget for it. Purchase and implement.

After you have all these hard links you’ll probably want to do some WiFi network tuning. Get a couple cheap but reliable Wireless Access Points. Put one down in the most central place in your household, close to a wired network jack. Configure and test. You can do network signal strength analysis and figure out if you’re on a Radio channel that’s already swamped by your neighbors with tools like Netstumbler (PC) or iStumbler (Mac). Do that, fiddle, figure out whether you need/want another. If you decide to replace your consumer Router/Firewall/Access Point combo device with the EdgeRouter LITE (totally not a shill, just an enthusiastic geek) or some other single purpose device, you can probably convert your router/firewall/access point to just an access point and use that. Whatever.

For reference, here’s the network diagram I put together for my contractor who ran the in-wall jack-to-jack hard lines.

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