Wireless LAN & LAN, routers, repeaters, powerline ethernet
Without a computer network, not much works in the modern household. Many devices are connected to the network, and new ones are constantly being added.
Wireless speakers, smart televisions and surveillance cameras are just as much a part of the network as streaming services. It is worth it to invest in powerful technology, especially since the amount of data that is being transmitted is only increasing. This Tech Guide shows you how to set up a fast network in your home.
Everything is connected
These days, running water and electricity is not enough. Data must also flow from room to room, with as little interference as possible. The home computer network transports photos, music and videos. It connects smartphones and PCs to the internet and controls devices in the smart home.
The technical term for a home network that uses cables is a Local Area Network (LAN). Long distance connections are also possible, called Wide Area Networks (WANs). In one sense, the internet is a single global WAN. You can buy LAN cables and sockets to set up a wired network. One advantage of a cabled connection is that it can be used to transfer a lot of data quickly and reliably. And, it doesn’t need to be encrypted. Unlike wireless signals, cables can’t be attacked from outside the home.
If a device does not have a LAN socket, or if pulling the cables is too difficult, wireless LAN (WLAN or simply wireless) comes into play. The wireless standard, also called Wi-Fi, replaces cables with wireless signals. Keep reading to learn more about this.
If you can’t access the internet or it is slow, it is not necessarily a problem with your home network. Maybe your connection to the outside world, through your internet service provider (ISP), does not provide you with a data transfer rate that is fast enough. You can check this for free in Germany on the Federal Network Association’s (Bundesnetzagentur) website at http://breitbandmessung.de.
Lord of the data
The router is at the heart of your home network. It acts as a control hub, connecting all devices to each other, and simultaneously to the internet. To do this, it needs a connection to the internet. DSL and VDSL routers are connected by cable to a network socket installed by your internet service provider. LTE routers connect themselves to the internet wirelessly.
Many providers give you a suitable router when you set up a contract, which has the advantage that the devices are preconfigured. However, you don’t need to accept their router. From 2016 on, in Germany new customers can decide which router they want to use, and existing customers can do so when they renew their contracts. Compare devices at a specialist retailer because many over-the-counter routers are more powerful that the internet provider’s model.
The faster the data flows through your network, the better. Videos, software updates and other large amounts of data can then be transferred in a shorter time. Your network’s speed is its data transfer rate, and is specified in megabits per second (Mbit/s). Fast LAN sockets can achieve 1,000 Mbit/s, corresponding to a gigabit per second. Anyone who connects computers and other devices that consume a lot of data should look for gigabit sockets.
Are all of the LAN connections on your router in use? A switch gives you space to connect additional devices. The switch is connected to one of the LAN sockets on the router and has its own power pack. You can purchase models with five, ten or even more LAN sockets.
Routers with WLAN or Wi-Fi functionality additionally provide a wireless network. Their range (distance) depends on a number of factors. Firstly, where it is installed in the room: In order to provide an apartment with full wireless coverage, the router should be positioned as freely and as high as possible – for example on a high bookshelf. Secondly, the range you can achieve with wireless depends on the materials used in the building’s walls. Massive reinforced concrete and plasterboard walls hinder wireless signals. Wireless repeaters and powerline adapters can be used to increase your network’s range in this case.
Over the years, wireless technology has become increasingly more powerful. New technologies and algorithms have increased the data transfer rates and reduced interference. These days, LAN cables are almost superfluous. Simultaneous video streaming at Ultra HD quality with several parallel data streams is not a problem for modern routers. Prerequisite: The other devices need to keep pace with technology’s progress. Otherwise, your network will become obsolete. To protect routers and your wireless network from unauthorized access, you must use secure passwords. Enable WPA 2 encryption (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2) or newer encryption standards by default. Your router’s user manual will explain how to do this.
Many models don’t just offer data management – some have a range of supplementary features. They can transfer calls to cordless handsets, serve as answering machines and receive fax messages. Some routers can even function as smart home hubs: they can issue commands to control lights, power adapters and even radiator thermostats.
Telephone base station
Many routers support the DECT cordless telephone standard (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications). You can then register cordless handsets directly with the router, without needing an additional DECT base station.
This also works with devices from different manufacturers – if the handsets use the GAP profile (Generic Access Profile). The “CAT-iq” technology that is typically built in allows for better voice quality.
Hard drives and other storage media connected to a home network are called Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices. A router that supports NAS devices makes this easy: It can transmit the stored data to other devices on the network. For example, this allows everyone in the family to access photos, videos and music files. It’s easy to install: connect the USB hard drive or stick to the router and activate the NAS function in the router’s menu.
Your router can also serve as a multi-socket hub in your network. Devices can be connected directly to its LAN (Local Area Network) sockets by cable. Powerline adapters or smart home hubs can also be attached. It usually makes no difference whether the devices are connected wirelessly (Wi-Fi) or by cable (LAN).
The stronger the wireless performance of the router, the faster and more reliably it can transfer data. Here is what counts the most:
N and AC wireless standards
The letters N and AC are extensions of the IEEE 802.11 wireless standard. They form the foundation of your wireless network. 802.11n is already significantly faster than the earlier version (11g). With 11ac, the speed has increased again – up to 1,733 megabits per second. This is a good three times faster than the 11n standard.
Dual and tri-band routers
Wireless networks traditionally operate on the 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) frequency band. Dual-band routers add the less crowded 5 GHz band – they support two frequency ranges. Some manufacturers even duplicate the 5 GHz network and call it a tri-band router, because three wireless networks are available in total.
MIMO and multi-user MIMO
Using multiple antennas increases the wireless stability and data throughput, and is called MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output). The default version lets routers provide a single device with multiple simultaneous data streams. A router with multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) can even supply multiple devices with multiple streams at the same time.
Practical signal amplifiers
Even the best wireless networks will reach their limits at some time or another. If you want to supply several floors in a building or surf the web at the edge of your property, you’ll need a Wi-Fi amplifier. This repeater is plugged into a power socket and serves as an extension of your router. It receives wireless signals, gives them more power and passes them on to the target devices. It works the same in the opposite direction, which increases the range of your router and home network.
There is one disadvantage: As long as the data communication back and forth uses the same frequency band, the additional range comes at the expense of network speed. Now, in addition to the router, the repeater also needs bandwidth on the network. In the worst case, your router will show you it’s using the full data transfer rate, but the data will only reach your devices at a snail’s pace.
Modern repeaters avoid this bottleneck by transmitting simultaneously on two frequency bands. For example, AV devices connect using the 5 GHz band, while the repeater maintains contact with the router on the 2.4 GHz band. The advantage of this crossband approach: data is forwarded quickly. High-end models can even maintain a second 5 GHz channel, reserved solely for communicating with the router. Or they use MIMO technology to increase the speed of transmission. In principle, a 2.4 GHz network has a wider range than a 5 GHz signal, which is why the upper frequency band is used to transmit faster.
Just like normal wireless devices, wireless repeaters can be set up on the router using the Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) functionality. This establishes a connection with the touch of a button. It’s a good idea to give the repeater’s own wireless network its own name (SSID) so that you can register selected wireless devices with that network specifically. Important: If you have several repeaters on the same network, they can interfere with each other. If you need something like this, you should look into buying a mesh system.
Data transfer rates
Up to 450 megabits/second
Single-band repeaters only operate on the 2.4 GHz frequency band. Although this increases the range of the network, the data transfer rates are limited. Such entry-level devices can’t achieve more than 300-450 Mbit/s. But they are inexpensive.
Up to 1,733 megabits/second
Dual band repeaters use the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands in parallel. Modern wireless devices will see a clear speed boost, especially when crossband repeating is used.
The signal from a wireless repeater is only as good as the data it receives. Therefore, place the repeater in your home so that its control LEDs indicate there is a sufficient signal strength – preferably halfway between the router and the edge of the area to be included in your wireless network.
Data communication over electrical wiring
There are power outlets in every room, these days. So why not use the power socket additionally to transmit data? Powerline ethernet technology makes this possible. If necessary, the existing electrical wiring in your home can transport your data signal from the router up to the roof: the data piggy-backs on your home’s power network.
A powerline adapter is connected to a free power outlet, and via a LAN cable to the nearby router. From there, data is fed into the electrical wiring inside your home. Another adapter fishes the data out again in another location. Therefore, every powerline network consists of at least two adapters. But you can also distribute several around your home. They don’t even need to be all from the same manufacturer: The international HomePlug AV standard means you can use a combination of brands.
To ensure fast data transfer rates, all devices must be attached to the same strength of power. It works particularly well when the connected rooms are on the same type of wire (phase). If that isn’t the case, you can make the signal change ‘phase‘ – jump across to another wire. The electrical wires only need to run in parallel for a short distance inside your wall. If in doubt, ask your electrician.
Powerline adapters encrypt their transmissions, and thus make sure that those who are on the same electrical system are not authorized to access the data. A button on each adapter is used to authorize the connections, activating encryption without any further setup.
Most powerline networks are connected to devices and routers with LAN cables. Some models offer two or more LAN sockets per adapter so you can simultaneously connect your computer, smart TV and network printer. Other powerline adapters can set up their own wireless network.
Data transfer rates
Up to 500 megabits/second
The low-cost entry-level devices are slower and do not offer Gigabit LAN connections. Where the gross data transfer rate is 500 Mbit/s, usually only half is usable, so a simple LAN socket with 100 Mbit/s is often enough.
Up to 1,200 megabits/second
To transfer the large amounts of data needed to stream video in high quality, buying faster powerline adapters is recommended. These can completely replace WLAN repeaters in your home network, or extend your network’s range.
Maintaining a larger network will quickly feel like a lot of work. A wireless repeater here, a powerline adapter there, and already you have quite some tasks to juggle. You have to remember separate passwords, manage access and ensure firmware is kept up-to-date. A mesh system takes this work off your hands. It’s called a mesh as it consists of several wireless devices that interlock, like fabric.
The wireless nodes in this meshed network communicate with each other and automatically assign the best node for each connected wireless device. It’s not possible for your smartphone to stay connected to your router when there is a nearer repeater that would provide a high data transfer rate. Frequency switching between the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands occurs automatically.
Only the first node in the mesh system must be connected to the router, the rest connect to each other wirelessly. Some routers have mesh functionality built-in, saving you from having to purchase the main (first) node.
A mesh network consists of several repeaters that can be distributed around the house to create a single intelligent wireless network. Devices such as smartphones or computers then automatically connect to the node that provides the best signal. In some systems, the router itself is the main node of the mesh network. In other mesh systems, a router is required additionally for internet access.
Easy to install
A mesh network organizes itself. The repeaters in the system communicate with each other automatically. Only the first node, or the main node, must be set up and connected to the internet. If this is a router, you need to set it up anyway. The remaining devices are assigned the same wireless network name and password from the main node.
Additional repeaters can be added to expand your mesh network as needed, thereby plugging every gap in your wireless at home. Simply pressing a button on the device or on a smartphone app provided by the manufacturer adds a new node. The usual wireless rules apply to their installation: Place them surrounded by free space and not too far away from the next mesh node. There should be no more than two or three rooms between the repeaters.
The right partners
A wireless network is not a one-way street. To use the advanced capabilities of modern wireless routers, your connected devices must be equipped with the appropriate technology. This starts with the frequency they can use. Older devices typically don’t support the 5 GHz frequency band. However, short-range transmission at this frequency is not only faster, it is less crowded than on the traditional 2.4 GHz band. Whenever possible, use the upper frequency band. Older notebooks and computers can use this band with an appropriate USB adapter.
Modern computers, smartphones and many smart TVs can use both frequency bands. However, the antenna technology can be a limiting factor. To use a router that has MIMO technology built in, wireless devices must have multiple antennas to receive and transmit two or more parallel data streams. The antennas are usually not visible from the outside. Even on the router, they can be built invisibly into the case. A manufacturer will either display or hide them as a design decision. Check the technical specifications if you are not sure. If you find there is a 2×2 or 3×3 specification in addition to the wireless 802.11ac standard, then your device supports MIMO technology. If in doubt, ask your specialist dealer.
Data transfer rates
The number of wireless antennas has a direct effect on the speed of data transmission. Manufacturer specifications of 1,300 megabits per second and above can only be achieved by using several parallel data streams. Some manufacturers combine the maximum data rates from both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands together, and thus arrive at values of 2,200 Mbit/s (2.2 Gbit/s).
All figures are the maximum possible data transfer rates. Overhead is built in for the signal needed to operate the wireless network and direct the data. Approximately half of this is left for the actual data transfer itself – taking these figures from 2.2Gbit to around 1Gbit/s. The label “Gigabit wireless” is therefore justified.
Keep the software on your network devices up-to-date to make sure you don’t have any security holes. Routers, computers and related devices often offer an automatic update feature. When you enable this option, the device installs security-relevant updates by itself when they are released.