Planning Your Wireless Home Network - dummies

By Lawrence C. Miller

Wireless (or Wi-Fi) home networks are common now, due to their ease of setup, convenience, and low cost. Planning and building a wireless home network can be as simple as buying a wireless access point (WAP) — also known as an access point (AP), wireless router, or base station — and connecting it to your Internet router or modem. It may be simple but, of course, it’s rarely as easy as it is simple.

You should begin by asking yourself, “What exactly do I want to do on my wireless network?” Some possible answers might be:

  • Surf the Internet, send and receive e-mails, blog, and chat online.

  • Connect securely to a remote office network via a virtual private network (VPN).

  • Connect multiple PCs and other wireless devices (such as printers, home security systems, home theaters, and gaming systems).

  • Conduct live meetings or webinars.

  • Play network games with others online.

  • Stream live music or video (including radio stations, TV, and movies).

  • Make Internet phone calls (using Voice over IP, or VoIP).

  • Send live video over the Internet. (Participate in video calls and videoconferences.)

A wireless access point is typically used to connect your wireless devices (such as laptop PCs and gaming consoles) to wired devices (such as a server or Internet router) using an Ethernet switch. A wireless router is a wireless access point that has a built-in router (to provide access to other networks, such as the Internet) and usually a 4-port Ethernet switch as well.

Wireless network speed considerations

The more things you plan to do from the preceding list, the more speed you’ll need. As you work your way down the list, your speed requirements generally tend to increase. For example, making a voice or video phone call over the Internet requires significantly more speed (and bandwidth) than connecting multiple PCs or sending a few e-mails.

The speed of your wireless network is important, but the speed of your Internet connection is usually more of a limiting factor when doing things on the Internet.

Following are typical speeds for residential Internet access:

  • DSL: 768 kilobits per second (Kbps) to 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps); high-end connections of up to 7 Mbps are also available.

  • Cable: 4 to 6 Mbps; high-end connections of up to 20 Mbps are also available.

As you connect more devices to your wireless network, less speed is available to each device, and network performance decreases overall. So while 54 Mbps may be all you need for one or two computers connected to your network, it’s very easy to see how a network with three or four computers, a wireless printer, and a Nintendo Wii or Microsoft Xbox 360 (or both), can quickly outgrow an 802.11g wireless network.

802.11n is the newest wireless standard, with speeds of up to 300 Mbps (although up to 600 Mbps is the official standard). In addition to higher speeds, 802.11n can cover greater distances than the other 802.11 standards, it’s backward compatible with 802.11b and 802.11g equipment, and it can operate at the 2.4 or 5 GHz frequency range.

Why does the frequency matter? Many cordless telephones and home appliances (such as microwave ovens) operate at the 2.4 GHz frequency range and can therefore interfere with wireless networks operating at 2.4 GHz. This interference can decrease the overall quality and performance of your wireless network.

Wireless network coverage

Another important planning consideration for your wireless network is coverage. Proper placement of your access point is crucial to maximizing the area your wireless network will cover. Oftentimes, it’s just a matter of plugging in a single access point wherever it’s convenient, but there are exceptions:

  • If you have a very large home, you may not be able to cover your entire house with a single access point. You may decide you don’t necessarily need coverage throughout your house, in which case you just need to find the best location for your access point to provide coverage in the rooms you need.

    Otherwise, you’ll need to install more than one access point — which requires some additional configuration, such as assigning a different IP addresses to the wireless devices that connect to each access point to ensure two devices don’t get the same IP address.

  • Certain construction materials may interfere with your wireless signal, decreasing the signal strength and overall coverage. For example, thick concrete walls in your basement or apartment building may reduce coverage.

Although you can use a professional utility to help you determine the optimum placement for your access point and map your network coverage, generally it’s easier (and cheaper) to experiment with a few different locations throughout your home before deciding on a permanent location.

Some general guidelines for placing your wireless access point in the optimum location include placing it:

  • Near the center of the area where you will be operating the majority of your wireless network PCs and equipment

  • In an elevated location, for example on a high shelf

  • Away from large metal or heavy concrete surfaces

  • Away from potential sources of interference such as kitchen appliances and cordless phones

It’s important to remember that maximum coverage is not always desirable. At greater distances from the access point, wireless signals are generally weaker and network speed decreases.