Making the Connection - 20 Feb 2002

Based on the excellent feedback we've received from Connected Home EXPRESS readers during the past few weeks, David Chernicoff and I decided to step back a bit and visit some foundational topics that address specific home-networking needs. For example, my column titled "Fun with Home Networking" from 2 weeks ago received a lot of positive feedback, but many readers were confused about how to implement the technologies in their own homes. Implementing these technologies is easier than you might imagine, but first you must have a general understanding of how to install home networks and how to combine and connect computers so that they're more useful and powerful than they would be on their own.

The first step, however, is to make a connection with the outside world. For the past few decades, most people have accomplished this connection through a dial-up modem, and although this method is still popular today, broadband connections such as cable modem, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), and even satellite are now making headway.

In the United States, you can buy modem-based dial-up Internet access for a flat fee of about $10 to $25 a month; generally, ISPs no longer bill such accounts on a per-hour charge as they did in the early days. But dial-up access is slow; maximum speed is about 53Kbps, although most connections are probably in the sluggish 20Kbps to 40Kbps range. Dial-up access also requires you to tie up the phone line when you browse the Web and get email, although some people have resorted to a second dedicated phone line, which could cost an additional $10 to $15 a month. As for providers, I wouldn't worry about choosing between local and national providers unless you travel a lot, in which case an MSN or AOL account could come in handy.

If you can get any form of broadband Internet access, I strongly recommend it. For about $30 to $50 a month (again, a flat fee), you'll get much faster Internet access (generally, 128Kbps to 1Mbps) that won't tie up your phone line. The biggest problem with broadband access—the ability to get the service—is diminishing in all but the most remote areas of the United States, although international broadband access is still a hit-or-miss proposition.

To take advantage of a broadband connection, you must outfit your PC with a Network Interface Card (NIC) rather than a modem. A NIC is generally an internal PCI card that requires you to open up your PC and do a little bit of hands-on installation (although many broadband ISPs will perform the installation for you as part of the service installation). USB-based NICs are also available, and these simple-to-install devices can save time and aggravation. However, they're generally not optimal because they might have to share USB bandwidth with other external devices such as scanners, digital cameras, mice, keyboards, and other hardware.

You can use a standard Ethernet networking cable between the NIC in your PC and the network to directly connect a PC to a broadband connection such as a cable modem or DSL modem. (Cable and DSL modems aren't modems, strictly speaking, but ISPs use the term modem to ease the transition for consumers.) More often than not, however, many people choose to go with a hardware-based residential gateway or router, which physically sits between the broadband modem and your PC. Such devices are common and inexpensive, and they offer a plethora of services.

Security was the original reason many people decided to get a broadband router. Most of these devices include a hardware-based firewall, which ostensibly prevents hackers from accessing your local PC or network, and people believed that an always-on connection such as a broadband connection would benefit from this kind of protection. But the reality is somewhat less inviting: Because of the pervasiveness of these devices and their lack of automatic system updates, hackers know exactly what to look for and will often specifically seek out popular broadband routers and exploit them.

A better solution, in my mind, is to go with a direct PC connection and use a software firewall (and virus protection) that you can constantly and automatically update. Windows XP comes with a basic, built-in firewall, and third-party products such as Zone Alarm also come highly recommended. However you make that connection, be sure to invest some time researching firewalls; some protection is always better than none.

Broadband access comes in three basic flavors: cable, DSL, and satellite. Looking past the marketing of these products, where each industry is attempting to discredit the capabilities of competing offerings, I'd choose them in that order, based on availability. Unless you're willing to pay for a high-end DSL account, cable is generally faster, less expensive, and more stable than DSL or satellite. I'd go with satellite only if the other two options aren't available in your area. But no matter which option you choose, they're all superior to modem-based dial-up access. And if you're already paying for a second phone line, a broadband account is a relative bargain.

After your Internet connection is up and running, you can create your home network and share that connection among all of your PCs. We'll look at these networking topics in a future issue of Connected Home EXPRESS.

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