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Extending your home network - Your options

You have a broadband connection, and you have a broadband router. This allows you to connect a few computers to the internet, perhaps as many as four which are plugged in directly via the wired connections, and a couple more via the wireless ('WiFi') network.

You may however feel that this is insufficient for your needs. Perhaps the wireless signal does not reach all parts of your house, you may not want or be able to to draw network cables across the house or you may want to connect more network devices than there are sockets on the back of the router.

In this article, I discuss network devices which address these issues and allow you to extend the range of your network and it's size (no. of computers). My aim here is not to turn you into a network engineering guru, but to give you a basic understanding of how networks can be extended, so that you can make intelligent decisions about how to extend your home network, if at all.

By the way, although I refer here to computers, the same is true for any networked device, including networked games consoles, printers, scanners and media streamers.

1. Not enough sockets

It should be mentioned in this context that most routers can 'control' over 250 network computers. This is a theoretical figure, and in reality you will be hard pushed to use more than a dozen devices or so simoultaneously before your broadband connection is overwhelmed. Even so, the 4 sockets on the back of your router may fall short of your needs.

What you need in this case is a network switch (or ethernet switch). These operate very much like multiway adapters for the mains - connect the switch to the router, and plug computers into the remaining sockets. There is a bewildering range of switches on the market, with different number of ports (sockets), speeds and levels of manageability. For small networks though, all you need is a small switch of five or 8 ports and costing around £20.

A typical network switch for home use.  This one has a five ports.


2. Increasing Wireless range

Wireless problems are common. Before you rush out to buy any hardware to improve your wireless network's range, consider the possibility that there is something wrong with your setup. Read this article, by Microsoft, before spending any money. Assuming that

It's possible of course that something is wrong with your wireless system, or that you can enhance it with certain updates, so if you are not an expert on the subject, I suggest you get someone who is to help you. I also suggest you 

For the purpose of this article, I'm assuming that the problem is with the size or layout of the house, or the materials it's built out of. You can extend the range of your signal as follows:

2.1 Replace the aerial with a better one

'High Gain' and directional aerials are available, which can improve the wireless performance of your router. These can help in certain situations, but don't expect miracles as the signal will still be reduced by walls, ceilings and objects along the way. A good WiFi aerial typically costs £30-50.

2.2 Get a wireless repeater

Alternatively, you can get a wireless repeater (also called a range extender).  This is a device which looks much like a router. It works by receiving a wireless signal, and then transmitting it again, effectively doubling the network's wireless range. Repeaters prices are around the £50 mark.


A wireless repeater, or extender, looks like many
other wireless network devices.

3. Use your mains wiring! (powerline)

Relatively new technology makes it possible to carry computer networking data on home electrical wiring. The main standard for this is called HomePlug, but rival standards are also popular.

Using HomePlug involves getting a HomePlug adapter for every computer which is wired that way and plugging it into a wall socket in the vicinity of the computer. The computer is connected into the adapter using an ordinary network cable (ethernet cable). An additional HomePlug unit is required to 'bridge' the connection between the HomePlug network and the router, or you can get special routers which have a HomePlug connector. You can find out more about the technology at the HomePlug Powerline Alliance web site.

The great advantages of HomePlug over ethernet and WiFi networks are:
  1. RANGE: Much greater range than feasible with WiFi, independent on the physical properties of the building
  2. SPEED: Faster and more reliable connection then WiFi over greater distances (but see below)
  3. SECURE: powerlines networks are automatically encrypted, ensuring that no outsider can eavesdrop or hack into your network.
  4. CONVENIENCE: No need to wire up the house specially for it as it uses existing electrical wiring
  5. COMPATIBILITY: Can be mixed with existing networks
Before you rush to replace your existing networks, you should also be aware of the technology's distinct drawbacks:
  1. SPEED: Although rated at 85-200 MB per second, which is faster than WiFi and comparable to ethernet speeds, the adapters are sensitive to problems in the mains circuits and susceptible to electrical noise, which means that they rarely reach their rated speed. In older houses in particular, HomePlug speed may drop significantly. While they can still be better than WiFi or ethernet in many situations, you should not expect them to deliver a perfect solution in an imperfect environment.
  2. SOCKETS: Most Powerline adaptors need to be plugged directly into a wall socket (i.e. not into an extension), reducing the number of free sockets available around the house.
  3. COMPATIBILITY: There are several standards of powerline technology, which are not compatible at all with each other. Even adapters branded with the 'HomePlug' logo can belong to one of a number of standars. In practice, this means you should buy all your adapters from the same vendor and at the same time. You should also understand that it is possible that if you need additional adapters in the future, it may be difficult to find a suitable one.
  4. COST: As mentioned above, you need an adapter per computer, and an addtional adapter or router for the whole circuit. The cost of these can really mount up. For example, a cheap set of 85MB adapters currently costs around £40, and the faster 200MB are about £30 each. Depending on the circumstances, you may also need to get an electrician to add sockets in the relevant rooms, adding further to the cost.
  5. WIRED: In many ways, powerline technologies seem much more like WiFi than wired netowrking. They allow you to extend the range of your network without installing new wiring, and provide you with great flexibility. However, you must remember that every computer on a powerline network must still be plugged into the wall. This is not the technology for taking your laptop into the garden!

4. Bridging networks

Network bridges are a more difficult subject which merits a whole article (or book!) in themsleves, but as they can be very useful, I will mention them briefly. A network bridge is a device which connects two networks transparently. In practical terms it means that the devices can 'see' devices 'on the other side' as if they were part of the same network. There are two common applications for wireless bridges:
  1. You want to connect a device to a wireless network, which only has a wired network card. If the device is a PC, it will be simpler and cheaper to add a wireless network adaptor to it, but if the device is a printer, game console or old computer (old Macintosh for example), then this option would not be open to you as you would not be able to instal thel software to control this adapter, and a bridge will be the most practical solution.
  2. You have a large property with, perhaps two buildings which you want to network. Networking each is easy, but running wires from one to the other is impractical. In this case you would use two wireless bridges to replace that wire or literally 'bridge the gap'.

A typical ethernet-wireless bridge for home use

In summary, there are several ways of extending your home network, each with its distinctive strengths and weaknesses, and a solution is rarely both good and free! The trick is to find the correct mix of technologies for your specific circumstances, ensuring that you get sufficient performance (speed, distance), features (e.g. Wireless mobility) at a reasonable price.

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