Home Networking: A Worldly Perspective

I'm in the middle of a three-week European vacation, and I’ve had home networking on my mind. That’s strange, considering I'm thousands of miles from home, right? But I've been staying at a lot of bed-and-breakfasts, which are typically in people's homes, and many of these homes actually have broadband-connected computers and even wireless networks. As you might expect, few of them are configured properly. But in this ever-connected age, I marvel at the fact that people in towns such as Amstelveen, Netherlands (just outside of Amsterdam), are as connected as I am back in Boston. Maybe I'm just naïve.

Networking Across the Pond
I've seen a lot of mixed 802.11b/g networks in Europe—most of them unsecure— and of course a selection of expensive pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi networks at hotels in cities. Curiously, one of the home-based 802.11g networks that I encountered was secured with the older WEP security standard instead of the more modern and secure WPA. In one case, I was even able to connect to a shared printer and print some driving directions, which was most useful. I'd previously been writing them down on a pad of paper after accessing the ViaMichelin Web site (Europe's answer to Yahoo Maps and MapQuest).

One problem I've had involves my PCs: Because of the amount and type of work I’m doing on this trip, I've brought two PCs and an Apple MacBook. The PCs, unfortunately, are both running the latest prerelease version of Windows Vista, which features an incomplete, buggy, and—in some cases—completely broken networking stack, making connecting to networks difficult. The MacBook and a co-traveler's Windows XP-based PC have had no such problems. But as industry pundit Jerry Pournelle likes to say, I make these mistakes so you don't have to. At least that's how I justify my own stupidity.

Anyway, it's impossible to spend any time in Europe and not think about the future. Europe, interestingly, is moving down a path that the United States would be wise to study, and the ongoing push to centralize around the European Union (EU) will have a far-reaching impact on all of Europe at a variety of levels. Technologically, Europe has much better cellular services than the United States does and, unexpectedly, has much faster Internet access in some areas. There will always be exceptions, of course—some rural areas of France have proven impervious to my desires to get online—but the situation is improving all the time. As I watch kids playing wireless PlayStation Portable (PSP) games with each other on buses, young adults tapping Short Message Service (SMS) and email messages on cellular phones, and people wirelessly computing on park benches in city centers, I have to wonder where it’s all heading.

Clearly, we're heading toward an age in which all telephone communications occur over the Internet instead of the switch-based networks that traditional telephone companies currently maintain. Wide-area wireless networks will cover urban areas first, and the rest of the world eventually, in the same way that cellular coverage has grown from niche to necessity. Until that happens, we're stuck with reliable but hard-wired traditional telephones, often unreliable cellular networks, and local Wi-Fi access only—often at alarmingly slow speeds. I can't help you with the first two concerns, but I do have a few bits of advice for that last one.

Take It Up a Notch
First, get the fastest Internet connection you can get or afford. In my area, that means a fiber-based broadband connection courtesy of Verizon FIOS that offers 15Mbps downstream speeds and 2Mbps up. If you can't get fiber, cable modems typically offer the next-best connection, followed by DSL. Consider anything else—satellite and, ugh, dialup—to be fallback options only, relegated mostly to rural areas that just can't get a good broadband connection.

Why do you need this kind of speed? Increasingly, you’ll do everything over an IP network, including telephone calls—often free or very cheap via Voice over IP (VoIP) services such as Skype—movie and on-demand TV downloads, shopping, video gaming, and so on. Your broadband connection is the superhighway between your home and the outside world. Make it a good one.

Networking at Home
Although I think we're long past the time when anyone would connect a PC directly to a broadband connection, good advice always bears repeating: Don't do it. Instead, put a router, switch, or wireless access point (AP) between your PC (or PCs) and the connection. This device will have a hardware firewall—always recommended in addition to the software firewall that your OS or security software suite supplies—and, if wirelessly enabled, wireless features and security settings that you can configure.

In a home setting, you should be using 100Mbps wired networking at a minimum (1Gbps, if you're particularly technical and know that your hardware supports it) and 802.11g (54Mbps) wireless functionality, unless you have any legacy 802.11b (11Mbps) devices. If you do, remember that your entire network will slow down to the 11Mbps speed when an 802.11b device is connected.

Better yet, think about 802.11n, which is sometimes referred to as Multiple In, Multiple Out (MIMO) or Wireless-N. The 802.11n standard offers speeds that are roughly two to four times as fast as of 802. Unfortunately, 802.11n won't be ratified as a true standard any time soon—it could be as late as 2008—but no matter. Every major wireless hardware vendor is creating 802.11n-based devices, including add-on cards for notebooks and desktop PCs. Some of the 802.11n-based routers are positively scary looking, with several antennas poking every which way. But they offer the kind of performance you'll need for such high-bandwidth tasks as streaming HDTV signals.

Keep It Secure
I’ve seen a lot of baloney printed about wireless security. The truth is that although no home network is truly secure, you can minimize your exposure by doing the right thing. Think of wireless security like the locks on your door: No lock is going to stop a professional thief, but locking the door and turning on some lights when you leave the house is a common-sense step you can take that will cause casual thieves to move on to more compelling victims.

In other words, enabling WPA2 security or even filtering MAC addresses won't stop hard-core criminals. But such precautions will prevent the teenager next door from hopping on your PC and downloading your personal photos. And really, that's the kind of protection you want. There are some home-networking security myths that don't hold up to real-world experience. For example, hiding the Service Set Identifier (SSID)—broadcasting the network name—will just make it hard for real users to get online, as will disabling DHCP (which automatically provides clients with IP addresses). Neither will deter actual thieves.

The Future Is Now
In the future, when everyone is using home networks for media sharing, online gaming, and other entertainment; performing network-based storage and file backup; and using an incalculable number of networked but non-PC devices, we'll look back at these early days in the same way that we nostalgically recall 8-track tapes and black-and-white TV. But you don't have to be sitting in a coffee shop in Europe to see the future happening. It’s happening right now in your home.

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