Networking News

From a NY times article by Eric A. Taub, August 25th, 2010

When one of the first instructions a popular wireless Internet router from Netgear gives its owner is a choice between the security protocols known as WPA-PSK (TKIP) and WPA-PSK (TKIP) + WPA2-PSK (AES), you know the home networking industry has problems.

The technology industry would like us all to believe that vast numbers of Americans are happily streaming feature films, Twitter feeds, photos and home movies from the Internet to every TV in the house.
The reality is that setting up a home network to make all that happen is still a more daunting task than most home improvement projects. And it may be even harder getting one to work reliably when every family member is on his or her own computer or smartphone, simultaneously streaming, posting and surfing.

“The wireless category has never made itself inviting to the consumer,” said Simon Fleming-Wood, a senior director for marketing at Cisco, which owns the Linksys brand of home networking equipment. “When you shop for networking products, you feel like you’re in the plumbing aisle of a home improvement store.”

While the idea of accessing content while roaming untethered from room to room is appealing, there is only so much bandwidth in the house available to handle all that traffic simultaneously.
Popping popcorn in the kitchen microwave for the Netflix movie you were expecting to stream from your Wii can disable the network. Or your spouse’s desire to watch YouTube videos of babies on in-line skates could slow down your ability to download that spreadsheet your boss is waiting for you to revise from home.

Everyone loves the idea of wireless — and that’s the problem. Most wireless traffic travels on the 2.4 gigahertz band, including cordless phones. A microwave oven operates at the same frequency. Put a wireless router too close to either and you can easily knock the router off line or slow the response rate to a crawl.

Your neighbor’s network can do the same thing. “The 2.4 gigahertz band is unlicensed, so all the neighbors using that frequency interfere with your bandwidth, and it’s happening more and more,” said Chris Geiser, a product line manager for Netgear, a maker of networking products.

The newest routers use the 802.11N standard, which allows a wireless signal to travel farther than the older 802.11G standard, which is good for getting the signal to your upstairs bedroom — but it can also send it to your neighbor’s upstairs bedroom.

Some of the new N-standard routers also use a second, higher 5 gigahertz frequency, which does not get interference from kitchen appliances. The problem is that not all devices seeking the wireless signal can receive that higher frequency. For example, Sony’s PlayStation 3 and some PCs operate only on that congested 2.4 gigahertz band.

Where you put your router can drastically alter the distance the signal can travel. According to Mr. Fleming-Wood, a wireless router’s signal strength can be cut short when it hits walls at an oblique angle or tries to travel through a kitchen’s ceramic tile or a bedroom full of mirrors.

You can extend the signal range of a wireless router with a device called a wireless bridge or range extender. (You can also use Wi-Fire, an external antenna from hField Technologies that increases the signal strength.) But if the signal emanating from the router is not strong enough to get to the bridge, the connection may not prove reliable.

“Just moving a router to the top of a desk can make all the difference,” said Joe Melfi, associate director of technical marketing at D-Link, which makes both wireless and wired Internet hardware.
A direct, wired connection to your PC, Internet-capable TV or game console usually works better than a wireless network. According to Mr. Geiser of Netgear, the company receives 70 percent fewer support calls for its wired products than its wireless ones.

Setting up a wired connection to most places in your home is easier than you think. While most of us don’t have Ethernet cables — those thick wires that come in blue or yellow and have fat phonelike connectors at the ends — in the walls of our homes, there is an easy solution: you use a special module to send the Internet signal from your router along your home’s existing electrical or cable wiring. The signal pops out through a receiving module you place near the PC or TV that you want to connect to the Internet.

“If I had total choice, a wired solution is definitely a better choice,” Mr. Melfi said.

Neither solution is right for every home. The electrical wiring products, known as HomePlug or powerline (the newest, fastest version available is HomePlug AV), may not be able to carry multiple streams of HDTV. And the cable solution, called MoCA, may not work if you use your coaxial cables to receive satellite TV.

Not only are wired solutions impervious to interference from other appliances or your neighbors’ networks, they are also more secure. “MoCA is like a walled garden,’” said Rob Gelphman, an executive with the MoCA Alliance, a trade group.

Most people also love the idea of streaming video — and that is the other major problem. Video requires an Internet connection that streams more bits per second to deliver a high-quality image to your TV.
While a basic DSL or cable Internet connection speed may be just fine for reaching the Web and downloading music, you will probably need to bump up the speed — and pay more to your Internet service provider — if you want to watch streaming movies.

Netflix, one of the most convenient services for streaming movies, says that it adjusts its picture quality depending on each user’s connection speed. It specifically suggests a minimum of 5 megabits per second if you want to watch its streaming movies in high definition. To watch films while doing other things online, you will need even more speed.

To minimize problems if you are trying to stream video wirelessly, look for a router that offers “Quality of Service” streaming. With these latest products, the router gives a higher priority to more-demanding video traffic than Internet data downloads.

For example, Netgear’s WNDR3700 router (about $150) gives the highest priority to voice-over-Internet protocol applications (phone calls made using services like Skype or Vonage), then video, Web sites, file transfers and bit torrents, in that order.

Some products automatically detect and assign priorities to streamed content, while others may require the user to manually set those parameters. Most companies are trying to make this more comprehensible. Cisco offers its Valet line of routers, which aim to make wireless connections plug and play, free from configuration jargon. Netgear routers use a setup program accessible from a Web site.

Setting up a home network may be moving toward a plug and play future, but to get there you most likely will need to follow another strategy: buy and return.
Sadly, router makers seem to think that is normal. According to Mr. Melfi of D-Link, picking the right product is still a trial-and-error process.
“It’s like going to the doctor: there are five treatments for one problem. You need to pick the best.”

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