Where business & technology meet
Simple home or small business network to allow SOHO working

Background

I recently undertook to integrate a couple of new colleagues into our company network - a simple VPN access to files they would need to work on and simple - trivial even - voice and video links to their home network, to say I was shocked at the list of problems that reared up and stood in the way of achieving these modest needs would be an understatement.

The underlying cause of the problems had their roots in the choices of broadband supplier and package my colleagues had made and in the ways they had gone about implementing their extremely simple home networks.

As I suspect the lessons I learned could be usefully applied by many small businesses and home workers I offer this "layman's guide" to doing it "right". Everything from choosing a suitable broadband supplier and package to where to put that "wifi thingy" that just got delivered needs to be considered if you want to get the best from your network system - your ability to do business may depend upon it … so read on.

Introduction

Many small business today operate from home - a room or space set aside in the house or a shed or dedicated "garden office" some distance beyond the defined living space.

With technologies like VOIP and WebRTC providing cheap, portable telephone and video communication, email, file transfer and web hosting being simple to achieve and large amounts of "cloud" storage available for backups or primary document storage running a business or working from home should be a simple thing to achieve. Once the business grows - maybe a colleague joins who also wants to work from home at another location, maybe you need access to files while on the road - a small file server is added, VPN ("Virtual Private Network") implemented and data synchronisation or secure remote file access becomes a need. Of course, some way of ensuring only authorised personnel can access the network externally - so in comes a Windows Server with its Active Directory component or a Linux server with one of its forms of access control.

Suddenly, things are starting to look like a mini enterprise-grade system.

Divorced from corporate IT support, many people hit obstacles that interrupt communications, obstruct the smooth flow of data or - at worst - make the whole enterprise unworkable.

Problems can show themselves, for example, as

  • unreliable voice or video calls (often being disrupted or disconnected for no apparent reason)
  • an inability to make some kinds of connection at all
  • poor WiFi speeds (nothing like those promised on the box) or poor reach - you can't work from the garden office or even from the garden on a sunny day because your laptop can't get a reliable WiFi signal … there may even be rooms in your house where no or an unusably poor WiFi signal is obtainable

Such problems may be merely irritating to a true home user. To someone trying to run a business, erratic communications or an inability to work where you need can prove to be a major risk to the business and may cause the business to fail entirely - after all, what customer wants to do business with a company it can't reliably communicate with? What company wants to employ a home-worker with whom it can't send or receive work?

If you find yourself in this position already, are about to start working from home or installing a small network (up to a couple of dozen devices) in business premises, I hope this article may help you understand why and where things go wrong and how to get round or - better yet - avoid the problems in the first place.

Throughout this article, technical terms are avoided unless they are essential to understanding (eg; you will see them on adverts, services or devices you need to choose between) and numbers and units have been rounded for simplicity (pedantic computer scientists needn't write to let me know that bits and bytes are measured out in binary … decimal arithmetic and ratios like 10:1 work well enough to understand the topic here!)

A word (or several) about home broadband

It is tempting (especially when budgets are tight) to simply take the cheapest "home broadband" deal on offer - after all, they all say they deliver the same speeds, don't they - and some even come with the "box" you need to share out the Internet among all the PCs, laptops, smartphones and tablets your family … and your office needs. Then install the box in the place quickest and most convenient (usually where the phone connection comes into the building) and sit back and wait for "the wifi" to provide the promised high speed Internet connectivity to all the many devices around your home.

Shortly after the contracts have been signed, long term commitments made and the ISP ("Internet Service Provider") chosen installs the new broadband connection is often the time when many home based businesses or home-workers realise that broadband connections are not all the same - and there may just be a bit more to this networking malarky than at first appears.

The kind of Internet connections we are concerned with here are those most commonly delivered to home premises:

  • ADSL ("Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line" if you must know) is still the most common kind of connection. It uses existing copper (you hope!) telephone wiring to "piggy back" a data connection on top of an existing analogue telephone service. "Asymmetric" relates to the difference in incoming (download) and outgoing (upload) speeds the service provides - with preference given to download speeds so the headline number - say, "24Mbps Broadband" relates to the maximum download speed the service can provide. Upload speeds are always a fraction of the download speed - a typical "24Mbps download service will provide only 0.5~1Mbps upload speed - though a chat with a capable and friendly ISP may be able to alter this usage, trading a little of the available download speed for higher upload speed - an important factor if your business has to send large data files as part of its work or makes more than light us of voice or video traffic. The quality of service that can be delivered (ie; actual speed seen at your premises) is highly dependent on the distance (cable length - not as the crow flies) from the telephone exchange to which you are connected. A service advertised as offering "up to" 24Mbps may only provide that headline speed to premises within a few hundred metres of the telephone exchange. Premises 2Km from the exchange will, at best, see just a fraction of the headline speed - perhaps just an erratic 2Mbps - and anyone unfortunate to live further than 2Km away will likely receive no service at all.
  • FIBRE service uses optical cables (made of glass or plastic) to transfer data as pulses of light rather than electrical signals over the metal cables used by ADSL. Because it is less prone to interference and deterioration of the signals it carries, it offers the promise of considerably higher speeds (technically "data transfer rates") over longer distances with far greater reliability than ADSL. In the UK at least, services delivered via fibre-optic connections are still asymmetric - but the  far higher overall bandwidth available allows for more generous division between the downward and upward streams, making the services much more attractive for use with multiple "real-time" (video, telephone) streams or rapid large file transfer needs. Fibre based broadband is delivered in (broadly) two ways - and it is very important that you understand the differences. A good, simple guide to the differences can be found at http://www.thinkbroadband.com/guide/fibre-broadband.html but a quick summary is provided here:
    • FTTC ("Fibre To The Cabinet") is the way that the majority of "fibre" broadband is delivered in the UK. Instead of providing an optical connection ("pipe") right to your premises, the optical fibre runs only as far as a street cabinet (in the UK, you may have noticed new green boxes appearing on the pavements around your neighbourhood). From the cabinet to your premises, the old metal telephone wiring (a century old technology) is still used to carry broadband and telephone to your premises. If you are served by FTTC, nobody will come to dig up your garden or drill new holes in your walls. A new "box" will be fitted that splits digital data and (via a convertor) analogue phone into two sockets. FTTC is a compromise that mixes old and new technologies (some may choose to call it a typical British fudge!) that saves money (nobody is digging up your street, your garden nor drilling holes in everyone's walls) but places considerable compromises on the quality of service that can actually be delivered. As the final piece of the links still uses metal cables, distance is still important - though now it is the distance between you and the nearest fibre-enabled street cabinet rather than the distance to the nearest telephone exchange. To give some idea of the speeds FTTC may deliver to you, only those living within 100 metres of a street cabinet might see the headline maximum speeds of 100mbps down / 25Mbps up. By just 150 metres from the cabinet, those speeds will be no better than 80/20Mbps - and at 1500 metres, you will be very lucky to see 15/4Mbps. As before, anyone living further away than this may receive no service at all. Buyer beware! Ensure you get an accurate estimate of the data speed you are likely to receive before changing to FTTC if you already have a reliable ADSL or other connection.
    • FTTH or FTTP ("Fibre To The Home" or "Fibre To The Premises") involves running optical fibre all the way to a building. Download speeds of 1Gbps (1 Gigabits per second or 1,000 Mbps) are possible today with much more in the future. It is considerably more expensive to implement than FTTC (streets and gardens need to be dug up and new holes drilled in walls for every premises to be connected) but it is the only true "future proof" solution. As for the cost, I place my weight behind the argument that for a fraction of the budget being considered for the proposed HS2 train line, every building in Britain could be connected to its own optical fibre and we could join countries like South Korea in considering multi-Gb Internet connections to every home or place of work the norm. The resulting economic benefits would surely outweigh HS2 as well … but I digress. As very few reading this will have the choice of moving themselves and their business to South Korea, this article will have to deal with what we're given.

A couple of other factors are vital to a proper understanding of the differences between similar sounding broadband products - no matter how they are physically delivered to your door - ADSL, fibre, satellite, 4G cellular … whatever. It must be understood that any computer network is a shared resource and this is especially true when it comes to the Internet and connections to the Internet. Just as too many computers connected to the same local network trying to transfer large volumes of data at the same time will exhaust that network's bandwidth, so any connection you establish point-to-point between your computer and some other device arbitrarily connected to the Internet relies on a host of shared - and, here's the point - bandwidth limited resources to work.

  • CONTENTION is the technical term used when a number of connections across a single data link try to use the network simultaneously. What? ISPs do not (unless you pay a lot of money) provide a single, you-and-you-only, point-to-point connection between your premises and "the Internet". On any network, the likelihood of its full bandwidth being demanded at any given point in time should be small - otherwise the network capacity needs to be increased! On any network, when multiple devices (connections) demand more than its capacity allows - or contend for more bandwidth than it can provide - a sharing mechanism comes into play to provide each device with some share of the available bandwidth. ISP's rely on this fact - so much so that when selling you a "24Mbps" connection, they may (for the sake of illustration) provide a connection to the exchange of (say) 100Mbps - which you may think would adequately allow four customers to hammer away at the connection to their heart's content, with a little capacity to spare. Except that ISPs commonly do not connect just four customers to such a "backbone" - they connect 10 … or 20 … or 50 … or more. This ratio of the number of customers multiplied by the bandwidth each is allowed, divided by the backbone capacity is called the "contention ratio" and on a business class link may be lower than 10:1 but at the cheaper, consumer end of the market ratios of 50:1 or greater are not unheard of. The higher the ratio, the greater the likelihood is that you will find yourself in contention (competing with) other customers for network bandwidth - with the result that the services you may be rely on slow significantly or stop working. If you have a consumer grade broadband connection and wonder why just after the schools close for the day your download speeds drop through the floor, consider all the children who are rushing home, powering up their games consoles and Internet connected TVs to start downloading Gigabytes of games and films. You are in very real effect "sharing the line" with them - the ISP's backbone network capacity is exhausted and the contention mechanism has kicked in to give everyone a fair chance at whatever data they are trying to transfer.
    • ADVICE: When choosing an ISP or a package offered by an ISP, look for the contention ratio - it should be there somewhere on their website specifying the package you are considering  or the ISP should be willing to tell you what ratio they use for a given package if you ask - and they're worth dealing with. For business use, look for a ratio no higher than 10:1 if you intend to make extensive use of the connection throughout the day - up to a maximum of 20:1 if you consider your needs to be light. In any case - if you can't get a straight answer, take your business elsewhere.
  • CAPS, FAIR USE POLICIES and TRAFFIC SHAPING are other mechanisms used by ISPs to restrict the amount of use you make of your Internet connection.
    • If I have to make a choice between them, I far prefer a DATA CAP - a clear limit on the amount of data you can download in any one month before the ISP either demands more money or cuts you off until the next billing cycle. That may sound drastic but a decent ISP will provide a high enough data cap that you will rarely exceed it and will work with you to accurately gauge your needs and provide the best cost package for you. The ISP should also give plenty of warning (say, when 50% and 75% of your monthly allowance has been used) allowing you to decide whether to cut back on traffic that month or pay a little more to meet exceptional need.
    • FAIR USE POLICIES are often anything but. Read the small print of that "unlimited" capacity, high speed connection you are offered and it may refer to "fair use". What this means is … whatever the ISP decides it means. While they have few customers on any given backbone it may mean nothing to trouble you (as unlikely as that is). As customer numbers increase, the ISP can decide to throttle (artificially slow down) or even for some periods completely disconnect you until it decides your usage falls back inside its definition of "fair". Good luck in getting them to explain what "fair" means at any point in time and space
    • TRAFFIC SHAPING is often more insidious. The benefit to the ISP is that they can advertise and contract "unlimited" download capacity and high headline speeds. The fact is however that they couldn't possibly allow all their customers to constantly download bucket-loads of data. Traffic shaping is a "polite" marketing term for straightforward throttling of your connection to the Internet. The trouble it causes you is that you have no control over what services they might decide to "shape" (if it's video calls, you just lost the ability to call anyone) or when they might do it or even how they might do it - they might throttle part of your connection (eg; slow file transfers) throttle your whole connection (so everything suddenly runs slow) or effectively cut your connection for some arbitrary period. Once again, good luck in trying to find out what level or type of activity might trigger the start of traffic shaping - it may be nothing you've done, just overall activity by too many customers trying to do more than the ISP's network can cope with if allowed to continue that led them to instigate action affecting all their customers. Only one thing is certain - you won't get truly "unlimited"  access to the Internet at a consistent speed that you have paid for.
    • ADVICE: Stay away from any broadband service that incorporates any form of "fair use" or "traffic shaping" policy as if the contracts carried the plague. For business use you need consistency and control over something that will be crucial to your very ability to conduct business. Why on earth would you risk letting someone else arbitrarily decide to restrict your use of such a vital asset?

As in any business relationship, service levels and reputation count for much when deciding which ISP to choose. Other factors may be less obvious. If you aren't technically savvy the fact that the ISP manages the "black box" router they supply as part of the deal may seem attractive - but if the ISP's customer support is a foreign call centre, you want to run your own email or telephone server and need to get TCP/IP ports unblocked or QoS (see below) implemented the way you need it and the ISP either won't allow it (because they want you to use their phone package or email) or tie you up for days while some incompetent nincompoop spends days or weeks or months failing miserably to perform a task that should take a competent technician no more than minutes to perform - it's your business that suffers … not theirs.

  • ADVICE: A good ISP should be willing to offer management of your router "black box" (perhaps for an additional charge) AND provide you with the login ID and password allowing you to find someone else to do what you need if necessary. The ISP shouldn't stand in your way.

An explanation of simple home network and Internet sharing

The diagram below shows a simplified overview of how the Internet is 'delivered' to a home and may then be distributed around the premises and shared among connected devices - directly connected (via Ethernet cables) such as PCs and servers or via WiFi as most laptops, tablets and smartphones will be.

 


[Click image or here to see at full size]

If we assume:

  • The incoming Internet connection is a modern fibre-based connection running at 100Mbps (mega-bits-per-second - approximately 10MBps (mega-Bytes-per-second)
  • A router maintains the Internet connection, provides some ("firewall") protection and its network switch runs at Gigabit speed (1Gbps ~100MBps) max transfer rate. Typically the devices provided "free" by many ISPs contain a combination of
    • modem - to connect to the exchange,
    • router - to direct incoming and outgoing traffic,
    • a small network hub or switch - to allow a few external devices (PCs, servers, laptops etc) to be connected with cables and
    • a WiFi Access Point
  • A PRIMARY WiFi access point (AP) is either built into the router (eg; BT HomeHub or most ISP supplied devices) or (a far better idea) connected to the Gigabit LAN and positioned centrally within the premises and this AP operates at least 802.11n standard or (better) 802.11ac standard - in any case with fallback to older 802.11g and (possibly) 802.11b standards.

THEN …

  • a PC or server connected by Ethernet cable to the router's Gigabit network and seeking to download a file from the Internet is limited by the speed of the Incoming Internet connection - as 1Gbps is ~10x faster than the 100Mbps incoming connection. The PC (for example while synchronising files with a "cloud based" file store) can easily consume the entire available Internet connection bandwidth.
    • The Internet connection is the "bottleneck" constraining the transfer speed.
  • a laptop (say an older XP generation device) may well have only an 802.11g standard WiFi radio built into it. In IDEAL circumstances, 802.11g offers a maximum transfer rate (speed) of 54 Mbps … so is limited by the speed of the WiFi connection … whatever you do you will never download a file at the full 100Mbps transfer rate provided by the Internet connection as the WiFi connection has a lower restriction.
    • The WiFi connection is the bottleneck constraining the transfer speed.
  • If, however, a newer laptop or device with an 802.11n radio built in is used (and assuming the AP supports 802.11n) then the theoretical maximum rises to 130Mbps (though see caveats below) … and the limitation becomes the external Internet connection once again. 802.11ac devices can operate at between 200Mbps and 833Mbps so offer even greater headroom.
    • Once again the Internet connection is the "bottleneck" constraining the transfer speed.

So … all seems simple …

…. Just make sure your WiFi AP and all connected devices support 802.11n and all will be well. Right?

Not Quite …

In practice WiFi connections rarely operate at their theoretical maximum transfer rates …. In fact the actual performance seen is often (usually) a fraction of the maximum "shown on the box".

Why doesn't my WiFi run at the speed it says on the box?

A couple of things to understand about WiFi speed "ratings" and how they translate into the performance you see in the real world:

  1. Published and advertised WiFi speeds represent the theoretical MAXIMUM that a given pair of devices can transfer data using the appropriate standard. So a pair of devices (eg; AP and laptop) operating to 802.11g standards IN IDEAL CIRCUMSTANCES could transfer data at a rate of 54Mbps. Devices operating to 802.11n, again in ideal circumstances could transfer data at 130Mbps - although a maximum of ~72Mbps is far more common … not much better than 802.11g.
  2. "Ideal circumstances" means sitting just a few feet from the WiFi AP and with clear line-of-sight between it and your laptop or other device with no interference from other equipment - including other nearby WiFi networks. In real-world use it can be just about impossible to achieve these "ideal circumstances" - and if you are sitting that close, why use WiFi when a couple of metres of Ethernet cable get the job done more cheaply, more reliably and with far higher transfer rates?
  3. Whatever the data transfer rate on offer (or in real world usage, achievable) that bandwidth must be shared by all devices connected to the AP (that is, trying to transfer data concurrently). Take the example of 10 laptops all trying to download large files at the same time the transfer rate (speed) each laptop will experience will be less than a tenth (the sharing imposes some overhead of its own) of the available speed.
  4. Actual transfer rates (speed) achieved falls off rapidly as soon as those IDEAL CIRCUMSTANCES deteriorate. So what constitutes a deterioration in ideal circumstances? It turns out many things are harmful to WiFi data transfer (in fact after reading the full list it's surprising the technology works at all!) the good news is that quite a few of these factors are within the user's control - a little care and application of "smarts" allowing the "ideal" to be approached, if never actually reached:
    1. DISTANCE: Simply put, even in clear line of sight, the further the two devices are apart, the slower the data transfer rate that can be achieved. The more modern standards (eg; 802.11n and 802.11ac) CAN be more resilient as distance increases but that depends in turn on correct implementation of the full standard - many devices that proudly claim (eg) "802.11n Compliant" lack the correct antenna implementation to enable this distance resilience to function. As ever, "buyer beware" and (more practically) do all you can to minimise the distance between AP and the devices it serves. Often, APs are built in to the routers supplied by their ISP - and those devices tend to be installed near the point that telephone services are delivered into the house (to save the cost and "untidiness" of running cables). This edge location is the worst possible position to place a WiFi AP. Ideally it should be relatively central within the premises, positioned high enough to minimise obstruction of its radio signals by furniture etc and somewhere that places the minimum number of walls between it and the devices it serves.
      1. ADVICE: If your Internet router includes an AP, either run cable (eg; phone extension) and install the box close to the centre of your house (as described above) or disable (turn OFF) the WiFi function of the supplied box then run Ethernet cabling to a dedicated AP positioned optimally within the premises.
    2. ATTENUATION: In simple terms, WiFi signals do NOT pass through walls. If you say "but I'm in a different room to my AP and still get a WiFi signal" that is because the radio signal is bouncing OFF the walls and getting to you through any gaps (door openings, windows, ceiling cavities …) it can find. Generally speaking, iIt ain't coming through the walls!
      1. ADVICE: Minimise the number of walls between AP and important work areas (such as the office space where you usually use your laptop or tablet).
    3. INTERFERENCE: WiFi APs operate in one of two main bands (both within the microwave spectrum) at 2.4GHz and 5GHz with the 2.4GHz bands being by far the most common. Unfortunately the 2.4GHz spectrum area is shared with a MASSIVE number of other devices (portable phones, remote controls, microwave ovens …) and avoiding all possible interference is impossible. To make matters worse, there are only 13 channels available within the 2.4GHz spectrum, each 20MHz wide. Also (it gets worse) these channels physically overlap … so a WiFi network operating on channel 1 is still likely to interfere with another WiFi network operating on channel 2 - leading to the advice that a gap of at least one channel should be left between APs operating nearby each other. Now consider that the 802.11n standard requires use of TWO adjacent channels to deliver its higher speeds (anything >72Mbps) reducing the number of usable channels (if interference is to be avoided) to four or fewer and you will start to understand just how difficult it is to avoid signal interference in any town or city. Unless you happen to live deep in the countryside it is a safe assumption to say that you WILL be suffering interference from your neighbours' WiFi. That doesn't mean they can access your network - just that neither your nor their WiFi networks will be performing at anything like their best potential. The problem is made worse by the fact that most AP manufacturers ship their products all set to the same channel - and most users never change them!
      1. ADVICE: Unless you know for sure that your WiFi AP automatically seeks out and adjusts itself to the least congested/interfered channel (as only some recent devices do), install the application "inSSIDer" (by Metageek: http://www.metageek.net/products/inssider/) available for Android, Windows, Mac and other operating systems  and use it to check the WiFi networks operating in your neighbourhood. Then ensure that YOUR WiFi AP is operating in the channel(s) that are least congested and furthest away from any others detected by inSSIDer.
    4. RANGE EXTENDERS: Technically called "Data Repeaters" - which is a far better description of what they do - these devices should always be seen as a last resort where adequate signal coverage cannot be obtained by better means. Range extenders operate by receiving a data packet on one channel (say from primary AP to a laptop) then a short while later rebroadcasting the packet on ANOTHER channel. This is not only wasteful (of data channel space) doubling the likelihood of interference with nearby networks, it is also SLOW - always at least half the transfer rate available from the primary AP - and introduces considerable additional latency (lag) as each packet is first stored then rebroadcast. A common mistake is to position a range extender close to the device (eg; laptop) that is having trouble connecting with the primary AP on the basis you then see a nice strong WiFi signal display on your laptop or device. WRONG! The range extender has to obtain a good signal from both the primary AP and the other device(s) it serves if it is to work with any benefit. Otherwise, a "choppy", intermittent or erratic connection is what you will see - even though the WiFi strength indicator on your laptop or tablet shows FULL! Most of these devices are quite crude and offer no means of checking the relative signal strengths THEY see (which is the information you actually need to position them correctly) so only trial and error can be your guide to best placement if you absolutely must install one.   
      1. ADVICE: "Better means" include relocating the primary AP (as described earlier) to a better position or (if the specific AP device allows) installation of appropriate "high gain" antennae, which operate by "focusing" the radio signal into a tighter directional band (think hoop instead of globe) or even directional antennae which, as their name suggests, direct all available signal into one direction only. Directional antennae are most useful if, for example, trying to extend a WiFi signal to an outside office or (if you MUST install your primary AP at the edge of your premises) a "wide" directional antenna might extend coverage deeper into the premises while eliminating "wasted" signal radiation outside the premises. You could also update (both ends of the connection, remember) to a more modern standard like 802.11n or 802.11ac

So, I've done all that - why are my phone and video calls still so choppy and prone to drop-out ?

A network exists to allow several devices to share a common data highway at the same time. The data transmission protocol used over the Internet (and internal Ethernet LAN segments) called TCP/IP is designed above all else to ensure reliability - defined as a given packet of data will eventually reach its destination .. no matter how long it is delayed, what sequence it arrives in and how many times it has to be resent. A fundamental requirement of the Internet is that if one route between source and destination breaks, another route is chosen - even if that means routing the data half-way round the world.

What does this have to do with your phone calls?

Consider this situation. You want to make a video call (eg; Skype) from your laptop at the same time as another device on the network is performing a large file transfer (perhaps a server is synchronising with "the cloud" or someone else is downloading a large game or video). Both data transfers have to share the available bandwidth.

In plain and simple form, the TCP/IP protocol will give both streams of data (the file transfer and the video call) equal priority. In simple terms, bandwidth will be allocated according to the volume and frequency of data packets that arrive at the router. As a result, BOTH data streams will be "slowed down". Fair enough if both streams represent some emails, web pages or file transfers. But if one stream comprises "real time" data, the rules for sharing available bandwidth are wrong - the file transfer (that doesn't really "care" if its packets are delayed or rerouted) gets to interrupt the smooth flow of packets that represent the video call - with the effect that some are sent too late to maintain the impression of "real time" transfer or can be sent in the wrong sequence or dropped altogether. Hence the choppy video or phone calls.

A way is needed to prioritise the data packets containing the video call. That way is called "Quality of Service" - QoS for short. QoS works by having the originator of a data stream (eg; Skype) tag each packet with a label defining the type of data it contains.  Most routers implement some form of QoS mechanism that is able to read and interpret these tags then give higher priority to the data packets that contain them over packets that can be delayed without too much problem (such as a file transfer). It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss implementation in individual routers (check the documentation that came with the router or look for it online). In a complex network - where you may have many competing types of data competing for the bandwidth - email, file transfer, CCTV cameras, telephony, video streams - QoS can become a complex puzzle with hard choices over which type of data to give the highest priority (eg; is it more important to you that the CCTV remains interrupted or are high quality telephone calls vital to your needs? If you are facing those kind of choices, I suggest you need more and better advice on how to buy, install and operate your network than is available here.

Thankfully, in a home network such concerns aren't likely to raise themselves as serious issues (especially if you have taken the trouble to run CAT5, CAT6 or fibre network cable and install devices so that your internal LAN operates at Gigabit speed or better). BUT … most all-in-one network routers arrive as-shipped with QoS turned OFF. Provided that you have administrative access to your router, find the QoS setting and simply turn it ON - in most cases, the router will follow default rules that will prioritise the "real time" media streams so as to give uninterrupted voice or video communication even while a large file transfer or other demand is placed on network bandwidth. If you don't have administrative access (ie; the login ID and password to access the router's configuration web page or command line) you will have to ask your ISP who manages the router to turn on QoS for you.

A simple way of checking if this is a problem on your network is to start a video call (eg; Skype) with a remote colleague or friend (ie; over the Internet) whom you know to have a reliable Internet connection (ie; their video and speech always comes through to you in high quality). Then while the call is taking place, perform a speed check on your Internet connection (eg; try http://www.speedtest.net/) to max-out your connection bandwidth (wait for both download and upload tests to complete). If your video call starts to deteriorate or disconnects, you need to implement QoS. If the video call remains the same, QoS is already deployed (on your router or, perhaps, upstream by your ISP) and you need do nothing more.

Checklist

I offer the following list of points, most of which are explained in the text of this article, by way of a checklist you can use to keep your plans on the right track.

Broadband connection

  • Any broadband connection that relies on copper (metal) connections (ie; the old analogue telephone cabling) for its last stretch into your premises will deliver a service speed to you entirely dependent on the distance between you and the node (telephone exchange or street cabinet) it is connected to. This is as true for FTTC type (sold as "fibre-optic" but I'd argue not) connections as it is for ADSL. Make sure you get an accurate estimate of the actual speeds you are likely to obtain in relation to any product and supplier you are considering.
  • In the UK many ISPs actually use BT's infrastructure and cabling for delivery of their products. This DOES NOT mean that all such ISPs are offering equivalent products. Each ISP has control (either through having their own equipment installed in telephone exchanges) or in the contractual relationship between them and BT and over the way your traffic is handled once it reaches their networks over vital factors such as contention ratios, data caps, "fair usage" policies and "traffic shaping". Make sure you understand these factors, find out from vendors how they apply to individual products offered and how they fit with your intended usage of the connection.
  • For business use, consistency and control over the connection are the two most valuable attributes (matters such as supplier reliability, service levels etc. being equal). I would advise all businesses (no matter how small  - even a lone home worker) to stay well away from any broadband contract that includes the terms "fair usage" or "traffic shaping".
  • Make sure that the ISP or product does not bar use of any services or products. It's still not uncommon to find ISPs who block the email service port (thereby preventing you running your own email server if you want to) or obstructing access to VOIP (Internet phone) or other services you may rely on. Check before hand and if ports are blocked, ensure that they will be quickly unblocked when you ask - specifically that you will not be tied to the vendor's own phone or other services but that you are free to shop the market for these services as you see fit.
  • DO look at reputable surveys (eg; in the UK conducted by PC Pro magazine or the thinkbroadband http://www.thinkbroadband.com/ website) to gather actual users feedback and experience of various ISPs and their products.
  • You MUST have administrative access to your router's setup interface or a reliable relationship with the ISP who will make it work the way YOU want it to. You may be satisfied with the way the device is set up when first delivered but your needs are likely to change and become more demanding with time. You must ensure that your router programming can be changed to enable your evolving needs. Even if you consider yourself a technical dunce, there's no real excuse for an ISP (who you are almost certainly paying for the privilege) to withhold login details to your own Setting up a small router. It's fair for them to warn that they will raise a charge if you change the device settings and muck things up but it's not fair to deny you the right to engage someone technically competent to change its settings for you.

Wireless connections (WiFi)

  • A cable trumps a WiFi connection every time. Even if you are sitting right next to the WiFi AP, if you have lots of data to transfer (say a major operating system upgrade or several GB of video files) then connect both the device containing the data and the one accessing it via Ethernet cables  through the fastest switch you have (hopefully they're all Gigabit switches anyway)
  • The SECOND job when configuring any WiFi Access Point (the first job is setting up its security so only authorised persons can get to your network) is to CHANGE THE RADIO CHANNEL on which it operates. Remember, if necessary run a programme like inSSIDer (see above for link) first to scan the local airwaves and decide the most appropriate channel on which to run your network.
  • From time to time (and always as soon as you encounter any WiFi related problems) run inSSIDer again to check that none of your neighbours have started to use the same channel as you and are stomping all over your pristine wireless network.
  • Don't settle for where the installation engineer wants to put the "internet box" or just leave it where the phone line comes in by the front door, move it to a central location - one nearest to where its WiFi goodness will be most used - even if that means running a little cable. I'll be blunt - don't complain about poor WiFi coverage around your premises if the WiFi AP has been stuck inside a cupboard or sits at the other end of the house from where you need to work.

 

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