Networking: The Heart of a Connected Home

Impress visitors to your connected home with your ability to stay in touch no matter where you are or what you're doing. A solid network infrastructure is a must-have feature for any modern home, and the cost of installation is small compared to the benefits you'll get over the life of the home. Today you'll use the network mostly for Internet access, but in the future you may use it for voice communication, home automation, and security monitoring.

World without Wires

Wireless networking, most notably the affordable 802.11b standard, is a great way to connect mobile computers such as notebook PCs or handheld devices. Wireless cards are available in nearly every interface and form factor, including PC Card (CardBus), Compact Flash, and USB. Imagine yourself reading email with your iPaq while sitting on your deck and enjoying a cool drink. Or, use a wireless network connection to turn your TV time into quality Internet time. Add an 802.11b wireless card to a notebook PC and cruise the Internet while watching your favorite show.

Are you retrofitting 21st-century technology into a 19th-century home? Wireless networking can come to the rescue. Plug in a PCI or USB wireless adapter for each of your desktop computers and they'll be on the Internet in a flash. Even if you have a wired network in the house, often a network outlet is not right where you want it. With a wireless adapter, outlet access is no longer a problem.

Still, wireless networks have their limits. For one, they run only at 11 megabits per second at best. When signal levels are weak—for example, the signal goes through too many walls or over too long a distance—the network will drop to 5.5 megabits or less. The actual distances for good transmission vary from about 50 feet to 300 feet, depending on the brand of equipment you use and the type of construction in the house. Because 801.11b networks share the 2.4-gigahertz frequency range with equipment such as wireless phones and cameras, interference can occur. To get the best signal, you should place the wireless access point in a central location in the house, with the smallest number of solid obstructions as possible between the access point and the receivers.

A new 802.11g standard is emerging that will allow higher speeds (up to 54 megabits per second) and that will be compatible with existing 802.11b equipment. Products based on 802.11g won't arrive until late 2002, though. Products have already started to ship for an 802.11a standard that also transmits at up to 54 megabits per second, but uses the 5-gigahertz frequency range. The 802.11a products are more expensive than 802.11b and are not compatible because they use a different frequency. For now, it looks like 802.11b is the safest bet. Prices for 801.11b adapters are already under $100, so you can always upgrade to an 802.11a/g network in a year or two when prices drop and a winner is clear.

The Wired Option

Given the limits of wireless, it's a good idea to install a wired network where feasible. Wired networks offer higher speeds, less interference, and better security. The actual cost of wire is almost nothing; you can get 1,000 feet of quality Category 5 (100 megabit) cable for about $50. Labor costs will determine whether a wired network makes sense. For new construction, the answer is clear: do it. Running wire is never easier than when the house is being built. Make at least one cable run from each room in the house to a central wiring area that will have the network hub.

In a finished home, running wires behind walls without disturbing the look can require a lot of work. Getting wires to any location is usually possible as long as an unfinished space, such as a garage, basement, or attic, adjoins the area you want to wire. In a carpeted room, often you can tuck the wire under the baseboard in the gap that covers the edge of the carpet.

Plan to install plenty of wiring for a home office. Make separate wiring runs to each wall where equipment may be located so that you can avoid the use of long extension or patch cables. If you plan to share the printer in your home office with other PCs in the house, consider using a LAN-connected printer instead of plugging the printer into your PC and sharing it using the operating system. That way, your home office PC doesn't need to be on for others to use the printer.

A utility room or basement is a good location for the central wiring area, where the home's video, telephone, and network wiring converges. Ideally, this location should be near the center of the house to minimize the length of the wiring runs. If the location is an unfinished room and appearance isn't critical, the equipment can simply be attached to the wall on a piece of plywood. For a tidier look, mount the equipment in cabinets or boxes recessed into the finished walls.

If you plan to use wireless networking, you can use any of your wired network outlets for your wireless access point. A good location for the access point can make a big difference in the range and signal quality. Walls and large metal objects such as refrigerators can block the signal. Choose a spot that minimizes the distance to any wireless device, and try turning the antenna by ninety degrees if the signal seems weak. Access points are small and quiet, so they won't spoil the décor of the room no matter where you put them.


When you set up a home network, you should make sure that data meant for inside the home stays inside the home, and only the traffic you want goes out onto the Internet. That's the purpose of a firewall, and every home network should have one. A firewall is especially important for homes with always-on connections such as cable modem or DSL. Internet e-vandals are always looking for a challenge, and leaving an unguarded system attached to your Internet connection is an invitation they won't ignore.

You can create a firewall between your home network and the Internet in several ways. One low-cost way is to use a software firewall, such as the Internet Connection Firewall (ICW) feature of Microsoft Windows XP. The PC running ICW uses two network connections, one to the Internet and one to the local network. ICW will pass only the network traffic that you authorize, and will block incoming requests from attackers. The downside is that the ICW system must be on at all times so that it can do the Internet routing. This may be inconvenient, especially if you plan to use the system as a desktop workstation as well.

A dedicated hardware firewall is usually more convenient than using a PC as a firewall. Today's firewall appliances are typically not much larger than a telephone, and they don't have any moving parts such as fans that would make them noisy and unacceptable in some rooms. Some firewall appliances have additional features such as a built-in network wiring hub or wireless access point. The ultimate all-in-one solution is the residential gateway, which combines cable modem, wireless networking, and firewall functionality in a single box. Even with all these features, a firewall appliance typically costs much less than a single PC.

Security is a particular concern for wireless networks. By default, most wireless setups are very open to outsiders. Your wireless access point will be behind the firewall so that wireless devices have access to other devices in the home. Unfortunately, that lets anyone with a wireless network card in a notebook connect to your network without ever going inside your home. That would give them access to all the traffic moving within your house, exposing shared resources such as drives and printers. Clearly, you'll want to prevent this situation.

All the wireless technologies include the ability to encrypt transmissions to prevent eavesdropping. However, you must enable it and enter the security key on every wireless device you install. This is well worth the small amount of time it takes during setup. The resulting network isn't totally hacker-proof though. Researchers have shown that it is still possible to break into wireless networks by collecting and analyzing enough traffic, but only a determined hacker who was physically close enough to pick up the transmissions could do this. For most home networks, merely encrypting the data will put an end to the most common threat of casual or opportunistic snooping.

Using the Network

Once the network is up and running, you can use it in a number of ways. In the family room, you can connect advanced game consoles to the Internet to play against other users all over the world. Do you have a ReplayTV personal video recorder? You can connect it directly to your network and it will download program listings over the Internet. It even lets you share recorded content with other ReplayTV users. While watching TV, you can open your notebook and use the wireless network connection to search for more information on the show's subject.

Families spend a lot of time in the kitchen, which means that a network connection is important there, too. Kids seem to have a magnetic attraction to the kitchen table when it comes to doing homework, and who can do homework these days without Internet research? A wireless connection and a notebook PC come in handy for these situations. You might also want a wall-mounted display so you can stay in touch with the outside world while cooking. Pull up some new recipes, check this afternoon's weather, or just cruise the Internet while you wait for chocolate chip cookies to bake.

Are your kids safe while using the Internet without your supervision? It doesn't hurt to have a little technology on your side. Content filtering software can block sites with adult content, and they can keep a log of where the kids have been visiting. Software-based solutions install on each PC, so you would need to install a separate copy on each system used by the kids. There are also firewall-based content filters that can block or monitor all the Internet activity from any device in the house.

Although content filters can be useful, especially for young children, don't count on them to be foolproof. Sometimes a content filter can incorrectly block content that is okay, or cause reliability problems on the PC. Older kids can often find a way to circumvent software-based content filters, or they may just go to a computer that doesn't have content filtering. Clearly, you have to use your own judgment and make sure your kids know their boundaries. If you decide to use the monitoring features, let them know you are keeping an eye on them.

Sharing an Internet connection for browsing is the primary justification for today's home networks, but it may not stay that way for long. ReplayTV is one example of why the future home needs a solid networking infrastructure. When manufacturers see a growing market of connected homes, they will begin to create products that take advantage of built-in networking. Imagine, for example, a box that retrieves the current local weather forecast from the National Weather Service over the Internet and speaks it over a speaker using text-to-speech conversion. Push one button in the morning and you'd always know whether to bring the umbrella.

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