Connect your home theater to a computer LAN to broaden your A/V enjoyment. Accessing a whole-home computer network opens up your home theater to any data point on the network.

Getting your home theater devices to communicate with your computer network is getting easier all the time thanks to newer technologies, lower costs, and equipment vendors’ increased experience with the consumer market.

It's possible that your ISP (Internet service provider) may forbid this kind of “server” connection. Most ISPs have very restrictive terms of service agreements that forbid just about everything but checking your e-mail and surfing the Web on your connection. If you start using a lot of bandwidth, your ISP may either make you stop or make you pay for a more expensive connection.

To help you on your way toward a whole-home computing system that can make use of your home theater, here are a few networking points to keep in mind:

  • You can carry data signals around your house in at least four major ways: CAT-5e cabling, wireless, electrical cables, and regular phone wiring and coaxial cables. If you can, run new CAT-5e cables through your walls to the places where you want it. If you use CAT-5e for your audio or video distribution, you are likely building a new home or renovating your current one, and running the cable shouldn’t be a problem. A wired infrastructure gives you much higher data rates, more reliability, and more flexibility.

  • Wireless options are great. These are quickly coming down in price, and you can build a home data network just by adding a wireless access point to your network. You then bring your devices online by adding PC cards (which plug into standardized PC card slots on the device) or USB-based dongles (or adapters) that plug into the USB ports.

    Most devices follow the 54 Mbps 802.11g wireless standard, and a few use the newer (and better suited for video) 802.11n standard, which provides speeds of up to 300 Mbps and can also use different frequencies (which are less crowded with cordless phones and the like).

  • You can transmit signals over electrical cables. The trick here is to use low-cost devices that conform to the HomePlug AV standard — a standard networking protocol for Ethernet connections using AC power lines. This standard allows speeds up to 200 Mbps, but speeds vary substantially based on where you plug in the devices and what is turned on at any particular time.

  • You can use the coaxial cables and phone lines in your house to send signals from room to room. A few networking systems use unused higher frequencies on the cable to send the data, so you can still talk on the phone or watch video at the same time. This is based on the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HPNA) standards.

  • If you have a high-speed cable, DSL, or satellite Internet connection, you have your high-speed Internet modem located somewhere on your network. It doesn’t matter where you put the modem, from the home theater perspective, because there really isn't a reason why the broadband Internet connection has to be located in your theater room.

  • You need a router if you want to support multiple Ethernet devices on one network and have them interface with the Internet. Often, the DSL/cable/satellite modem is also a router. The router has a built-in hub that enables you to interconnect multiple data lines.

  • If you are going to be routing video or large files over your LAN, consider getting an Ethernet switch instead of a hub. In this way, you can make sure you get all the bandwidth you need for a quality transmission.