Info & Answers
Home Networks 101: Wired, Wireless & Mesh
Everything you need to know about connecting all the digital data in your home.
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November 05, 2008 by EH Staff

Remember the time when a home network consisted of two computers sharing the same Internet access? That’s old news now. Yet this was the cutting edge a few short years ago! Granted, many people still have a home network consisting solely of two computers sharing an Internet connection. But home networking today is so much more.

Share a printer, you say? That’s possible, but it’s also old news. How about sharing a media server that stores all your music, digital pics and more on hard drives for instant access. Maybe you’d like to download a movie from the Internet and watch it on your TV. Or perhaps you’d like to hook a system up to your electrical service to monitor the amount of energy you’re using. That’s all possible with today’s networking. Next up? The wireless transmission of HD signals around the house.

No matter what you use a home network for, you’ll likely either choose between a hardwired network that sends signals over high-speed data cable like Category 5, 5e and 6 or a wireless network that transfers data, music and whatever over radio frequencies.

Wired Networks
There are several ways of getting information from one place to another. If you’re building a new home, high-speed cabling, including plenty of Category 5 (or higher) Ethernet wiring, is a fantastic medium for doing everything from distributing data between computers to pumping audio and video from a central rack of equipment to multiple speakers and TVs.

Many builders offer structured wiring systems as standard amenities in their new home packages. Included are cabling, wall outlets and a hub. The cabling is usually made up of Category 5 (or 5e) or Category 6 Ethernet wiring and RG-6 cables for distributing video from security cameras and other devices throughout the home. More recently, Cat 5 cabling is being used to distribute video sources.

To set up a wired network, you may need a network switch or hub. The computers are connected the switch, which is connected to a computer server that is connected to the Internet. It’s important to get switches and network adapters that not only work together, but have enough ports to accommodate your networking needs for today and in the future.

Wireless Networks
Wireless networks using Wi-Fi techbology have become much more popular and reliable. The standards now are moving from Wireless-G (also known as 802.11g) to Wireless-N (802.11n), that offers 300 megabits per second speeds, compared with 54 Mbps for Wireless-G. In between, there’s Wireless-G Enhanced with 108 Mbps, and MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) at 240 Mbps and a wider coverage area than Wireless-G.

You’ll also get better coverage with Wireless-N products, so that you’ll be able to roam around with your laptop and still get a solid connection. To enjoy the speed and coverage of Wireless-N, you’ll need to upgrade to a router and computer with Wireless-N built in or buy a network card or USB adapter for each of your computers.

Wireless-N is also turning up on audio and video products that allow you to stream content stored on your PC or a stand-alone server to TVs and speakers throughout the house. Without running a single bit of wire, you can zip digital photos to the big-screen TV in the family room or downloaded music to a pair of speakers in the master bedroom.

Mesh Networks
Radio frequency (RF)–based communication has dramatically improved how we interact with certain household devices. But as with any technology, there is always room for improvement. Traditional RF communication is one-way, so if you use an RF remote or keypad to turn on a light in a different room, the system is unable to tell you if the light has actually turned on.

Another issue with traditional forms of RF signal transmission is signal interference. These limitations are becoming problems of the past, thanks to new forms of communication technology that are being adopted by a number of home electronics manufacturers.

Z-Wave, ZigBee and Insteon are three of the most promising wireless control technologies to date. Although each differs in its makeup, all employ a new type of networking infrastructure, called mesh networking, that strengthens the transmission and reception of wireless signals throughout a home. Products designed to work on a mesh network send their signals over multiple communications paths, unlike traditional RF products that use a single communications path. The more products on a mesh network, the more communications paths are formed, which gives signals several travel options and ultimately enables commands to reach their destinations quickly and reliably.

Once the operation is complete, a confirmation is sent back to the remote. With traditional, one-way RF, the remote would receive no notification of whether a signal was received. Mesh networking is getting the biggest support from manufacturers of lighting control systems. A number of handheld remotes are employing ZigBee, Z-Wave and Insteon, too.

Finally, mesh networking offers the opportunity to build a home control system with products from a variety of manufacturers instead of products from a single maker. In addition to lighting controls and remotes, some of the product categories on the horizon include sprinkler controls, motorized blinds, home control software and thermostats.

Green Networking?
Yes, even home networking can be energy efficient. D-Link, for one, has introduced “green” network switches that automatically turn off ports when it detects that a computer connected to the port has shut down. Normally, the switch “pings” the computer to try to re-establish communications. And Linksys is using more efficient Energy Star-rated power adapters with many of its Wireless-N and Wireless-G routers, including greener, less bulky packaging.

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