More in Home Technology

On the Same Wavelength

A home computer network means there's no waiting in line to get online.

Illustration by Jason Schneider
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Soon after Jeff Herbst signed up with his cable company to have a high-speed Internet connection in his Silicon Valley home, an unexpected problem developed — not technical, but marital. "We both had our own computers, but my wife and I started to fight over who could go online," Herbst recalls. They could have resolved the dispute by getting a second cable modem, but at $40 a month plus installation, this wasn't an appealing alternative. So Herbst ended the bickering by installing a network that lets their two computers simply tap into one Internet connection through a box called a home gateway. He can check the early trading of his stock portfolio on a bedside laptop computer at the same time she is catching up on her e-mail downstairs on her desktop. After only a few weeks with his system, Herbst, executive vice president at a software firm, became a networking enthusiast. "This technology is really going to change people's lives," he says.

Herbst is not alone in this thinking. The growing numbers of high-speed Internet connections provided by DSL and cable modems has been driving the demand for residential networks. But the advantages of networking go beyond allowing several household computers to tap into one costly Internet hookup. Once a home is networked, kids can square off in a virtual battle between two computers. Instant messages between PCs in different parts of the house can replace shouting up the stairway. And expensive peripherals, such as photo-quality color printers, become accessible to every computer in the house. In the long run, a network will likely become the house's central nervous system, monitoring and controlling everything from lighting, security, and HVAC systems to such seemingly low-tech items as refrigerators, kitchen ranges, and washing machines.

Until recently, computer networks were solely the province of the business world. Only offices had the resources to buy all the software and the different pieces of hardware needed to receive information from the Internet, convert it to a format that a personal computer can understand, parcel the appropriate pieces of data out to each networked device (printers, external hard drives, and other peripherals), and allow the smooth, uninterrupted flow of digital information between these devices or back out to the Internet. And only a business could afford to hire the technicians needed to set up, troubleshoot, monitor, and routinely service each system's complex electronic choreography.
Soon after Jeff Herbst signed up with his cable company to have a high-speed Internet connection in his Silicon Valley home, an unexpected problem developed — not technical, but marital. "We both had our own computers, but my wife and I started to fight over who could go online," Herbst recalls. They could have resolved the dispute by getting a second cable modem, but at $40 a month plus installation, this wasn't an appealing alternative. So Herbst ended the bickering by installing a network that lets their two computers simply tap into one Internet connection through a box called a home gateway. He can check the early trading of his stock portfolio on a bedside laptop computer at the same time she is catching up on her e-mail downstairs on her desktop. After only a few weeks with his system, Herbst, executive vice president at a software firm, became a networking enthusiast. "This technology is really going to change people's lives," he says.

Herbst is not alone in this thinking. The growing numbers of high-speed Internet connections provided by DSL and cable modems has been driving the demand for residential networks. But the advantages of networking go beyond allowing several household computers to tap into one costly Internet hookup. Once a home is networked, kids can square off in a virtual battle between two computers. Instant messages between PCs in different parts of the house can replace shouting up the stairway. And expensive peripherals, such as photo-quality color printers, become accessible to every computer in the house. In the long run, a network will likely become the house's central nervous system, monitoring and controlling everything from lighting, security, and HVAC systems to such seemingly low-tech items as refrigerators, kitchen ranges, and washing machines.

Until recently, computer networks were solely the province of the business world. Only offices had the resources to buy all the software and the different pieces of hardware needed to receive information from the Internet, convert it to a format that a personal computer can understand, parcel the appropriate pieces of data out to each networked device (printers, external hard drives, and other peripherals), and allow the smooth, uninterrupted flow of digital information between these devices or back out to the Internet. And only a business could afford to hire the technicians needed to set up, troubleshoot, monitor, and routinely service each system's complex electronic choreography.
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home networks
Illustration by Jason Schneider
Luckily for homeowners, the key components of a computer network are now being packaged into tidy, easy-to-install kits costing as little as $100. They can handle all the routing demands of an office network without the need for a technical degree or a closet big enough to hold all the hardware. You just plug the DSL or cable-modem line into one port on the gateway, which handles all the complicated routing functions, and plug each computer or peripheral into its own separate port. (Some devices even incorporate the DSL or cable modem, eliminating one more gadget from the clutter that surrounds computers these days.) The step-by-step software provided with the network kit pretty much takes care of the rest. Of course, like nearly everything involving computers, these kits don't always live up to their plug-and-play promises, but most sets come with troubleshooting programs that enable even the most technophobic user to sort out installation problems.

Before purchasing a network kit, you need to decide how many computers you want to connect and how all the devices will be linked together. There are at least three different options to choose from: conventional phone lines, high-speed Category 5 ("Cat 5") wire, and wireless radio transmissions. Wireless kits offer the ultimate in networking flexibility because they eliminate cables altogether. As long as one computer is booted up and hardwired to the Internet, any computer that is within 150 feet of the base transmitter can transfer data at speeds up to 11 Mbps (megabits per second). Installation is simply a matter of plugging the gateway into an outlet, plugging an 802.11 network card — "a credit card" sized receiver/ transmitter — into the appropriate slot of each networked device (the PCMCIA slot on a PC, the AirPort slot on a Mac), and loading the software.

While home-based wireless systems may be easy to set up, they face other limitations. For instance, while radio waves can easily pass through wood and plaster, they bounce right off metal objects, including large appliances and steel studs. "Metal is probably a radio signal's biggest enemy," says Greg Joswiak, the senior director of portables product marketing at Apple, which makes the wireless AirPort gateway. Microwave ovens and cordless telephones operating at the same frequency as 802.11 networks can also interrupt the signal and temporarily shut down the connections. To minimize these problems, most kits allow adjustment of the system's frequency to eliminate interference from other appliances.

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networking
Illustration by Jason Schneider
When concerns about interference are paramount, a wired network makes the most sense. The easiest systems to install are those that use the wires already embedded in the walls. By the end of this year, there are likely to be gateways on the market that work through ordinary electrical wires. At this time, however, the only way to piggyback onto existing circuits is through conventional telephone wiring. As long as the wires have been properly installed and haven't deteriorated with age, it's just a matter of plugging each device into a phone jack and installing the necessary software. Standard telephone wire can handle current high-speed Internet traffic just fine, but with access speeds steadily increasing, its 10-Mbps transmission capacity (the same as wireless systems) is all but certain to become a digital bottleneck. Electrical contractor Allen Gallant, who has worked on several This Old House projects, no longer installs this wire when he's working on new homes and additions, even if his customers plan to use the lines only to make telephone calls. Instead, he specifies Category 5 enhanced cable, a souped-up telephone wire that can simultaneously handle up to 100 Mbps of high-speed data. Cat 5 is nearly four times as expensive as everyday telephone wire, but that amounts to a mere 15 cents per foot — a bargain considering the transmission speeds it offers. And it has to be handled with care. Pulling the wires too hard, bending them too sharply, or shoving them through too tight an opening can alter the way they twist inside their plastic jacket, reducing performance. "You don't have to treat them like eggs," Gallant says, "but you do have to use some common sense. To put it simply: Don't force it." Shortcuts are also out. Each computer jack, which looks like a phone jack, needs its own separate cable run from the central gateway; it can't have any splices along the way. Nor can Cat 5 cable slink alongside electrical wires. The electromagnetic fields that the wires generate when in use can interfere with the relatively weak digital signals in the cable. Keeping the two lines at least a foot apart protects against such interference.

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networking equipment
Photo by David Prince
For networks that use wires to handle the data transmission, high-speed Category 5 cable (1) is the current gold standard for home and office. Fat composite cables (2, 3) combine Cat 5 and other transmission cables within a single PVC jacket, saving on installation costs. The teal cable contains two Cat 5 wires (for the network) and two shielded RG-6 coaxial cables for cable and satellite television. The orange "future-proof" cable contains Cat 5 and RG-6 wires, as well as a fiber-optic line, the fastest available transmission medium. At present, however, there is no practical way for homeowners to use fiber optics, which explains why even a fancy network jack (4) has plugs only for co-ax and Cat 5. A wired network requires a home gateway (5) to be plugged into such a jack so that computers can swap files and share peripheral devices. Not so the wireless network devices (6, 7), which move data via radio transmissions. All it takes for a computer or any other device to be part of a network is to slide a network card (8) into the appropriate port.
While many people turn to pros like Gallant to install the network's wiring, others do the job themselves. Mark Cerasuolo, a director at Leviton Integrated Networks, braved the cobwebs in the crawl space beneath his home in Redmond, Washington, to lay the wiring for his own Cat 5 network. As insurance for the future, he doubled each run of Cat 5 cable and put in parallel runs of coaxial cable (for TV and satellite reception) and fiber-optic cable. Fiber-optic lines, which carry light-based data through strands of ultrapure glass no thicker than a human hair, are the fastest — and at 30 cents a foot, the most expensive'transmission media yet devised; one strand alone could handle all the phone calls in the United States at any given time.

Cerasuolo's fiber-optic lines sit unused, however; he hasn't purchased the media-conversion equipment (at $300 to $1,000 per connected device) needed to change electrical impulses into photons, or hired a $100-per-hour fiber-optic specialist to spend an hour or two making the connections at each jack. Still, because it's the labor, not the cost of cable, that is the main expense in any wiring job, Cerasuolo says it makes sense to buy the ultimate in cable technology to insure against future obsolescence. "I don't want to have to go back again and do battle in the kingdom of the spiders," he says. Herbst avoided any spidery realms altogether by choosing a wireless gateway device for his home network. By plugging a wireless network card into his laptop, he can surf the Web while roaming the house or yard. The total cost: about $500. Herbst has found that the appliances in his kitchen turn that room into a dead zone for the new system, but even with the interference problem, Herbst's network has begun, as he predicted, to change the way he lives. After breakfast, for instance, he takes care of business sitting cross-legged on his couch, free from the distractions of the office. "Since I've hooked up, my colleagues at the office haven't seen me as much in the morning," he says."I like the freedom of being connected virtually anywhere in the house, or just outside of it." Not to mention the peace that networking has brought to his domestic life.
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Securing the Area

 

Securing the Area

With any computer connected to the Internet, there's always a chance that a hacker or virus can find a way in. And when that computer is networked to others in the house, they all become vulnerable. Many recent home gateways alleviate much of this concern by including firewall software that acts as an electronic sentry between the local network and the Internet to prevent outsiders from stealing your credit card number or accessing personal information, and to stop viruses from erasing files and eating up memory.

Wireless networks are more difficult to protect because the electronic chatter between devices can be easily intercepted with a simple antenna up to 150 feet away. But interception is not the same as infiltration, says Greg Joswiak, the senior director of portables product marketing at Apple Computer. Because each network card is encoded with a unique address and because the signal it sends out is encrypted, he says, electronic eavesdroppers can't spy on your e-mail or seize control of your computer, even if they were to pick up that signal. Joswiak acknowledges that a determined and sophisticated hacker might be able to overcome these protections, but he says the same is true of any firewall in a wired network.

Still, wireless-home-network owner Jeff Herbst admits that he's slightly uneasy about the ability of outsiders to pluck his network's transmissions from the air. He plans to reduce that risk by adding passwords to both of his computers. And he keeps sensitive information about family finances off the air entirely by storing it on his desktop computer. It's linked to his network gateway by wires, rather than through radio waves.
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Easing the Pathway

 

Easing the Pathway

For years, networking firms have been trying to figure out how to plug a computer or other peripherals into a standard electrical outlet and use the existing network of electrical wires to share data as well as to power light bulbs and hair dryers. But so far, the only such system that made it to market was plagued with problems and couldn't maintain high-speed data transmissions.

The HomePlug Powerline Alliance — a group of companies including Cisco Systems, 3Com, Intel, and Panasonic — is developing new technical standards for piggybacking digital data onto electrical wiring while maintaining reliable speeds of up to 14 Mbps and complete compatibility between computers and their add-ons. It's a tall order, but according to Alberto Mantovani, the president of HomePlug, field trials of systems using the new standard demonstrate that it is possible to push data and household current through the same copper wires. Consumers won't be able to find out for themselves how well these systems work until the end of the year, at the earliest, when the first networking products based on HomePlug standards hit the stores.
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Where to Find It

Home ethernet gateway
3Com Home Ethernet Gateway by 3Com
877-949-3266
www.3com.com

Wireless gateways
Airport Base Station by Apple Inc.
800-692-7753
www.apple.com

HomeConnect Home Wireless Ethernet Gateway
3Com

Cat 5 and Cat 5 composite wires
LANshack.com
a division of Atcom Services Inc.
Clark, NJ
888-568-1230
www.LANshack.com
 
 

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