As recently as 15 years ago, your TV, your family room lights, and your computer system didn’t know each other and certainly didn’t talk to each other. These days, however, all of your electronics, and even some of your lights and appliances, are good friends, as they are all connected to your home network. Furthermore, all the humans in the family use multiple phones, tablets and computers, which are also all on that same network. In short, the network is literally the hub of almost everything in a house these days. So, you’d better make sure it’s done properly!
There are several key components to a home network system, some of which are often combined in a single box to save money and space. The modem starts things off – it connects to your internet service provider, or ISP. From there it goes to the router, which does exactly that – it routes the network signals to the rest of the house, either through wired ethernet cables or wireless, through Wi-Fi signals. For homes with lots of networked things, the router connects to one or more network switches, which allow the connection of multiple ethernet cables to various electronic equipment. In more advanced systems the switch also connects to one or more wireless access points (WAPs), which are essentially antennas that allow Wi-Fi reception throughout the home. In most consumer-grade systems, the modem, router, switch and antenna are all contained in one box that you get from your ISP.
Wireless vs. Wired
Most of the systems I see advertised on TV or in the big box stores are DIY wireless systems. If you’ve read this blog before, you know that professional electronics systems companies rarely use wireless connections for anything, yet alone something as important as security. My expert goes on to make the following comments in this area: “Personally, I don't like wireless devices but in some of cases it's the only option. Although technology has improved a lot over the years, we still have limited battery time and more RF interference than ever.”
Types & Grades of Network Systems
Which brings us to the discussion of network grades. Like everything else in the world, combining everything in one box is not the best way to do it. Yes, it saves cost and space, but usually at the sacrifice of quality in one or more area. The consumer-grade network is therefore the lowest grade in the network world. The next grade up, commonly referred to as the enterprise-grade network, splits out all of the network functions into separate pieces. Yes, this requires additional space and cost, but it allows each piece to really be good at what it’s supposed to do. Homeowners with lots of connected devices should definitely consider upgrading to an enterprise-grade network. The final network grade is generally referred to as a commercial-grade network. The components are generally identical to enterprise-grade equipment, but they are of even higher quality and offer additional security capabilities that aren’t generally needed in a home, so they are mostly used in large offices and other commercial buildings. They also cost quite a bit more than the enterprise-grade systems.
WAP vs. Mesh vs. Extenders
If you’ve read this blog before, you realize that the best approach is to use hard-wired ethernet cable connections for as many of your connected devices as you can. But for certain things, such as phones, tablets and laptops, using Wi-Fi is definitely preferable. If you buy a consumer-grade system, however, you’ll quickly notice that all-in-one box doesn’t give you the best Wi-Fi signal in some areas of the house. So, your first solution option is to get a Wi-Fi extender, which adds a second network and sends that signal to your other network. An extender is essentially a “bridge” between two networks. This can work well, but it requires logging in and out of two different networks, depending on where you are in the house. More modern consumer-grade networks have thus converted to what’s known as a “mesh” network. With this type of system, the extender(s) allow everything to connect to the same network, so you don’t have to switch networks as you switch locations in the house. These work well, but the best way to do it, frankly, is just like the commercial-grade guys do it. They use a network of WAPs throughout the office, so that everything is covered. This works well in homes too. Most large homes can be fully covered with just one or two WAPs. (I have a single WAP in my attic space, and it gives me excellent coverage no matter where I am in the house.) With a good WAP setup, you can wander freely throughout your house, as you watch the latest TikTok videos on your cell phone!
More and more of the electronic devices we use every day are connected together and/or connected to the internet. This so-called “internet of things” (IoT) means that our home network system needs to be both robust and reliable in order for us to enjoy the many benefits that all these wonderful electronic devices offer us. Like most things in our world, network systems come in lots of different levels of quality and performance. A top-end consumer-grade system is adequate for a small home with a relatively modest number of connected devices. For a “smart home” or any house with lots of devices, however, it pays to invest in an enterprise-grade network system. The network is the hub from which everything else connects, so it pays to get it right!