In 1902, a man named Willis Carrier invented air conditioning. Fifty years later, this technology – originally designed for industry purposes, began making its way into American homes. Now 95% of all new homes in the U.S. have central air. What was once considered a luxury is now a must have feature for today’s home buyer.
Here in the 21st century, the home network has become a must have utility for new homes. Since the invention of the internet, digital computer technology has significantly improved most aspects of our lives. We use it to stay informed, to be entertained, to be more productive, socially connected, for security, for communication, comfort, even health. Smart phones allow us to keep this technological leverage with us at all times, at the ready. Just as the average person expects a comfortable temperature in every room in their new house, they also expect to be able to use their technology reliably everywhere in the house.
If we haven’t already, you and I will probably have a conversation about how Whistler can help you with your ideas for improving your life at home with technology. You might want a more exciting entertainment experience when watching movies and TV. Maybe you want to keep an eye on your package deliveries and keep track of visitors with a doorbell camera. Maybe you’d like to cut back on your energy bills by monitoring your usage and adding “smart” features to automate your lights, heating, and air conditioning. There are lots of ways technology can help at home, and pretty much all of them depend on one thing: a quality home network.
What exactly do I mean by a network? Roughly speaking, a network is a group of computers that can send messages to each other, some through the airwaves, most via wired connections. Your cell phone is connected to a network maintained by your carrier, consisting of cell towers wired back to buildings with industrial versions of the router you have at home. The internet is an enormous web of interconnected computers and routers between yours and the website you ask for information. Many of the latest smart home devices form their own little wireless network inside your home to talk to each other, largely independent of your own wifi network.
If you pay for internet service at home, you have your own little personal network right there in your house. You know that little black box your provider supplied when you signed up for the service? It contains the four types of components necessary for a network all in one box. These are: the modem, a gateway/router, a switch, and a wireless access point.
The modem talks to your service provider’s equipment. It facilitates the connection from your house out to the internet. The router is responsible for making sure that the outgoing and incoming packets of information are addressed properly and sent to the right place, either out to the service provider’s router and the greater internet, or to a device on your home network. Most routers also have a firewall built in, which is responsible for keeping your network secure from malicious attacks by bad actors. An ethernet switch provides connections for wired devices, where an ethernet cable carries the data between your device and the network equipment. It can also route data among the various devices connected to it. A wireless access point gives access to the network to devices that don’t stay in one place all the time or don’t have a physical connection available. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops are good examples of these. Data is sent back and forth over radio waves between the device and the wireless access point.
If all these network components are conveniently included in the box we get from our internet provider, do we really need to buy anything else? The answer to that question is: not always, but usually. In a small home such as a one or two bedroom apartment, with one or two users and not very many network devices, the ISP (Internet Service Provider) wifi router works just fine. Once the size of the home, the number of devices, and the number of people using the devices increases, the need for something better becomes obvious.
The most common issue experienced by the most people is that a single wifi bubble is not enough for most modern homes. The range at which the wifi router can reliably talk to devices is limited, and is negatively impacted by the walls, floors, and ceilings of our homes. This is why the most common way people seek to improve their home network is by adding more pieces that can extend their wifi bubble to cover more parts of their house.
Even if one wifi access point was enough to cover the entire home, the increasing number of wireless devices that will need to use it to communicate over the network creates a volume of traffic that will slow down the entire network. Generally speaking, wifi is a wait-your-turn type of communication, where devices must wait for the others to stop talking to have their chance to transmit or receive data. It’s like speaking to people over walkie-talkies on the same channel. When one person talks, no one else can. If another channel (or wireless access point) is made available, then some people can switch over to the new channel and communicate at the same time as those on the first channel. This is another reason that more than one wireless access point in a home is desirable.
This is a good spot to address a common expectation held by most people, that I hear very often. “Everything is going wireless.” It is true that the number of devices we use that are connected wirelessly to the network is increasing. Wifi is convenient and easy, and doesn’t require that much effort in the way of infrastructure in the home. The convenience has always come with a performance trade-off, due to challenges in getting a good quality signal along with the limitations surrounding the way communication happens over wifi as mentioned above. It’s true that the capabilities of wifi have also been steadily improving. At the same time, the capabilities of the devices that use wifi have been increasing, along with the demand they place on the network. Some of the major advancements at the time I’m writing this, like 4K (soon-to-be 8K) video with HDR as well as augmented reality (AR), require huge amounts of bandwidth. Considering the increasing demand of network resources alongside the inherent limitations of wireless in general, it’s easy to see that a network plan that isn’t solely dependent on wifi can help create a better overall experience with better performance and reliability.
There are many devices that can be physically connected to the network with a wire, and doing so has advantages. A wired connection is usually faster, and is much less susceptible to interference. Each wire acts like a dedicated line for the device to the network. Like Batman’s red phone sitting on the commissioner’s desk – there is never a busy signal on the Batphone! It can also take some of the load off the wireless network by reducing the amount of traffic traveling over the airwaves. For these reasons it’s a good practice to hardwire devices that stay in one place, especially those that consume large amounts of data, like TVs, game consoles, and desktop computers. The ISP routers only have four of these connections available on their box, so it’s very common to add a separate ethernet switch with as many connections as makes sense in the application, while also allowing for some room to grow.
Finally, the box supplied by the provider is of a quality level that meets the needs of what they consider to be the average household. Some households need hardware capable of handling much bigger computing workloads. Homes with gamers who love to play online, homes with camera systems that are continuously sending video to be stored in the cloud for future reference, and homes with several devices that automate the lights, comfort, and security systems of the house almost always prove to be too much for the abilities of the ISP router.
It’s likely that your home will fall into the category of one that needs more than a single box for your network. The solution we offer is designed to provide a secure connection to the internet with reliable wireless coverage throughout the house, including the areas used outside. We use separate components that can be scaled to the size of the home and the type of uses expected, and a strategy that uses a mix of both wireless and wired connections for greater overall reliability. The quality of the components is high, because we know that the network is the foundation for almost all of the technology in the home, and we take it seriously. The vast majority of service calls in our business are a result of network issues, and we dislike problems every bit as much as our clients.
As of the beginning of last year, 82% of households had high-speed internet service, and that number is steadily increasing. The home network is the 21st century’s central air. Reliable, predictable performance of technology throughout the home is an expectation, not a luxury. It takes a bit of knowledge and experience to do it right, and that’s where Whistler can help.