When it comes to home networking, there’s a soup of technical terms, LAN, WAN, broadband, Wi-Fi, CAT5e, just to name a few. If you’re having a hard time with these basic terms, you’re reading the right post. Here I’ll (try to) explain them all so that you can have a better understanding of your home network and hopefully a better control of your online life. There’s a lot to explain so this long post is just the first of an evolving series.
Advanced and experienced users likely won’t need this, but for the rest, I’d recommend reading the whole thing. So take your time, but in case you want to jump to a quick answer, feel free to search for what you want to know and chances are you will find it within this post.
1. Wired networking
A wired local network is basically a group of devices connected to one another using network cables, more often than not with the help of a router, which brings us to the very first thing you should know about your network.
Router: This is the central device of a home network into which you can plug one end of a network cable. The other end of the cable goes into a networking device that has a network port. If you want to add more network devices to a router, you’ll need more cables and more ports on the router. These ports, both on the router and on the end devices, are called Local Area Network (LAN) ports. They are also known as RJ45 ports or Ethernet ports. The moment you plug a device into a router, you have yourself a wired network. Networking devices that come with an RJ45 network port are called Ethernet-ready devices. More on this below.
Now that we’re clear on wired networks, let’s move on to a wireless network.
2. Wireless networking
A wireless network is very similar to a wired network with one big difference: Devices don’t use cables to connect to the router and one another. Instead, they use radio wireless connections called Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity), which is a friendly name for the 802.11 networking standards supported by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Wireless networking devices don’t need to have ports, just antennas, which are sometimes hidden inside the device itself. In a typical home network, there are generally both wired and wireless devices, and they can all talk to one another. In order to have a Wi-Fi connection, there needs to be an access point and a Wi-Fi client.
Wi-Fi range: This is the radius an access point’s Wi-Fi signal can reach. Typically, a good Wi-Fi network is most viable within about 150 feet from the access point. This distance, however, changes based on the power of the devices involved, the environment and (most importantly) the Wi-Fi standard. The Wi-Fi standard also determines how fast a wireless connection can be and is the reason Wi-Fi gets complicated and confusing, especially when considering the fact there are multiple Wi-Fi frequency bands.
Frequency bands: These bands are the radio frequencies used by the Wi-Fi standards: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. The 2.4 GHz and 5 Ghz bands are currently the most popular, collectively being used in all existing network devices. Generally, the 5 Ghz band delivers faster data rates but a little less range than the 2.4 Ghz band. Note that a 60 GHz band is also used but only by the 802.11ad standard, which is not yet commercially available.
Note: In order to create a Wi-Fi connection, both the access point (router) and the client need to operate on the same frequency band. For example, a 2.4 GHz client, such as an iPhone 4, won’t be able to connect to a 5 GHz access point. Also, a Wi-Fi connection takes place on just one band at a time. If you have a dual-band capable client (such as the iPhone 6) with a dual-band router, the two will connect on just one band, likely the 5 Ghz.
802.11ac: Sometimes referred to as 5G Wi-Fi, this latest Wi-Fi standard operates only on the 5 GHz frequency band and currently offers Wi-Fi speeds of up to 2,167 Mbps (or even faster with latest chip) when used in the quad-stream (4×4) setup. The standard also comes with the 3×3, 2×2, 1×1 setups that cap at 1,300 Mbps, 900 Mbps and 450 Mbps, respectively.
Technically, each spatial stream of the 802.11ac standard is about four times faster than that of the 802.11n (or Wireless-N) standard, and therefore is much better for battery life (since it has to work less to deliver the same amount of data). In real-world testing so far, with the same amount of streams, I’ve found that 802.11ac is about three times the speed of Wireless-N, which is still very good. (Note that the real-world sustained speeds of wireless standards are always much lower than the theoretical speed cap. This is partly because the cap speed is determined in controlled, interference-free environments.) The fastest peak real-world speed of an 802.11ac connection I’ve seen so far is around 90 MBps (or 720 Mbps), which is close to that of a Gigabit Ethernet wired connection.
On the same 5 GHz band, 802.11ac devices are backward-compatible with Wireless-N and 802.11a devices. While 802.11ac is not available on the 2.4 GHz band, for compatibility purposes, an 802.11ac router can also serve as a Wireless-N access point. That said, all 802.11ac chips on the market support both 802.11ac and 802.11n Wi-Fi standards.
802.11ad or WiGig: First introduced in 2009, the 802.11ad wireless networking standard became part of the Wi-Fi ecosystem at CES 2013. Prior to that, it was considered a different type of wireless networking. 2016 marked the year when the first 802.11ad router, the TP-Link Talon AD7200, became available.
Operating in the 60 Ghz frequency band, the 802.11ad Wi-Fi standard has an extremely high speed — up to 7 Gbps — but a disappointingly short range (about one-tenth of 802.11ac.) It can’t penetrate walls very well, either. For this reason, the new standard is a supplement to the existing 802.11ac standard and is intended for devices that sit within a close proximity of the router.
It’s an ideal wireless solution for devices at a close range, with a clear line of sight (no obstacles in between) such as between a laptop and its base-station, or a set-top box and a big screen TV. All 802.11ad routers will also work as 802.11ac routers and support all existing Wi-Fi clients, but only 802.11ad devices can connect to the router at high speed over the 60 Ghz band.
3. More on wireless networking
In wired networking, a connection is established the moment you plug the ends of a network cable into the two respective devices. In wireless networking, it’s more complicated than that.
Since the Wi-Fi signal broadcast by the access point is literally sent through the air, anybody with a Wi-Fi client can connect to it, and that might pose a serious security risk. So only approved clients can connect, the Wi-Fi network should be password-protected (or in more serious terms, encrypted). Currently, there are a few methods used to protect a Wi-Fi network, called “authentication methods”: WEP, WPA and WPA2, with WPA2 being the most secure while WEP is becoming obsolete. WPA2 (as well as WPA) offers two ways to encrypt the signal, which are Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) and Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). The former is for compatibility, allowing legacy clients to connect; the latter allows for faster connection speeds and is more secure but works only with newer clients. From the side of the access point or router, the owner can set the password (or encryption key) that clients can use to connect to the Wi-Fi network.
If the above paragraph seems complicated, that’s because Wi-Fi encryption is very complicated. To help make life easier, the Wi-Fi Alliance offers an easier method called Wi-Fi Protected Setup.
Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS): Introduced in 2007, Wi-Fi Protected Setup is a standard that makes it easy to establish a secure Wi-Fi network. The most popular implementation of WPS is via push-button. Here’s how it works: On the router’s (access point) side, you press the WPS button. Then, within two minutes, you must press the WPS button on your Wi-Fi client and you’ll be connected. This way you don’t have to remember the password (encryption key) or type it in. Note that this method works only with devices that support WPS. Most networking devices released in the last few years do, however.
Wi-Fi Direct: This is a standard that enables Wi-Fi clients to connect to one another without a physical access point. Basically, this allows one Wi-Fi client, such as a phone, to turn itself into a “soft” access point and broadcast Wi-Fi signals that other Wi-Fi clients can connect to. This standard is very useful when you want to share an internet connection. For example, you can connect your laptop’s LAN port to an internet source, such as in a hotel, and turn its Wi-Fi client into a soft AP. Now other Wi-Fi clients can also access that internet connection. Wi-Fi Direct is actually most popularly used in phones and tablets, where the mobile device shares its cellular internet connection with other Wi-Fi devices, in a feature called personal hotspot.
Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output
Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) is a technology first introduced with the Qualcomm MU/EFX 802.11AC Wi-Fi chip. It’s designed to handle Wi-Fi bandwidth efficiently, hence iy is capable of delivering better data rates to multiple connected clients simultaneously.
Specifically, existing 802.11AC routers (or Wi-Fi access points) employ the original MIMO technology (aka single-user MIMO) and that means they treat all Wi-Fi clients the same, regardless of their Wi-Fi power. Since a router typically has more Wi-Fi power than a client in a particular wireless connection, the router is hardly used at full capacity. For example, a three-stream 802.11ac router, such as the Linksys WRT1900AC, has a max Wi-Fi rate of 1,300 Mbps, but the iPhone 6s has a max Wi-Fi rate of just 833 Mbps (dual-stream). When the two are connected, the router still uses the entire 1,300 Mbps transmission to the phone, wasting 433 Mbps. This is similar to going to a coffee shop to get a small cup of coffee and the only option is the extra large.
With MU-MIMO, multiple simultaneous transmissions of different Wi-Fi tiers are sent to multiple devices at the same time, enabling them to connect at the speed each client needs. In other words, having a MU-MIMO Wi-Fi network is like having multiple wireless routers of different Wi-Fi tiers. Each of these “routers” is dedicated to each tier of devices in the network so that multiple devices can connect at the same time without slowing one another down. To continue the earlier analogy, this is like having multiple coffee attendants in the shop, each of whom gives out different cup sizes so that customers can get the exact size they need, and faster.
In order for MU-MIMO to work at its best, the technology needs to be supported by both the router and the connected clients. There are many clients on the market supporting MU-MIMO now, and it’s predicted that by the end of 2016, all new clients will support this technology.
4. Power line networking
When it comes to networking, you probably don’t want to run network cables all over the place, making Wi-Fi a great alternative. Unfortunately there are some places, such as that corner of the basement, that a Wi-Fi signal won’t reach, either because it’s too far away or because there are thick concrete walls in between them. In this case, the best solution is a pair of power line adapters.
Power line adapters basically turn the electrical wiring of your home into cables for a computer network. You need at least two power line adapters to form the first power line connection. The first adapter is connected to the router and the second to the Ethernet-ready device elsewhere in the building. More on power line devices can be found here.
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