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Ten things you really need to know about home networking

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1. What is a network?

Simply, a network connects computing devices together (computers, printers, tablets, etc.). The internet is a network.

If you are connected to the internet, then you are part of two networks:

The Wide Area Network (WAN) out in the big wide world

A Local Area Network (LAN) usually controlled by your router

The router does all the hard work of connecting your LAN to the WAN

2. What are IP addresses?

These are the actual addresses of all the devices on the network. When you type in a web-site name, it is translated into the IP address and then your web browser connects to it. The main system is IPv4, where your computer will have a LAN address like and IPv6, which basically gives a whole lot more numbers. This is used on the WAN. To give you an idea. IPv4 can’t give everybody on the planet one Internet  address (let alone your TV, toaster and so on). With Ipv6, even if every cell in your body - and everyone else’s - had an Ipv6 address, we would only just be scratching the surface.

3. Cable, ADSL and fibre

There are two main ways to connect to the internet. Via the telephone line (called ‘ADSL’) and cable (called ‘cable’). These use different routers.

ADSL speeds fall rapidly as the line length from the exchange increases. Fibre is a technology that maintains the speed pretty much to your street and can give dramatic increases in speed.

Between 20 and 50 subscribers will share the line to the exchange. The broadband speed that you are told abut is the speed limit of the connection, just as a motorway has a speed limit of 70mph. As things get busier, then you find that the actual speed can fall away, just as more cars on the motorway slow the traffic down below the speed limit.

4. Wired or wireless?

Connecting everything by cable (‘Ethernet) is the most reliable, most secure and gives the fastest connection. But many devices don’t have a cable connector or you want to move them about. So wireless (or ‘WiFi’) has a valuable place.

5. How does wireless work?

Wireless, or WiFi, works by your router and devices communicating on one of 13 channels. There is a radio (or wireless access point) built into the router. The technical name for the standard is 802.11 and you may see WiFi described as 802.11

There are a whole range of speeds inside 802.11, but the most common are 802.11b,g and n. These are in increasing order of speed, but unfortunately range tends to drop with speed. b goes back a long way, so nearly all the devices you use will have 802.11g and/or n. All the devices on the network need to be on the same speed (b/g/n) as the router, which these days offers g and often n at the same time.

And if it wasn’t complicated enough, more than one  frequency is used these days. It uswed to be just 2.4GHz, but now 5GHz can be used as well.

6. Security

The thing with a wireless network is that if you can connect to it, so can everyone else (and then they can look around your devices). So security is important.

WEP is an old security system that asked you for a password to access the WiFi. Once connected all communication with the router is in clear text.

WPA and WPA2 encode the transmissions between the devices and are far better for security

WPS is a process for automating the connection of devices to routers. The idea is that you press a button on the router and enter a code on the device.

7. Network problems

Something has gone wrong:  you can’t get through top your favourite web site.

This means that one stage of the journey has failed. Either your device can’t connect to the router or the router can’t connect to the internet.

8. Can’t connect to the internet

Can anyone? If not the problem is most likely with the router:

Look at the router. Are any lights labelled ‘DSL’ or ‘Internet’ flashing sleadily?

If so, this means that the connection to the telephone exchange has failed.

First step: is the phone working? If not that’s a clue the problem is on the line,

Second step: turn off power to the router and turn it on again. If the lights become steady, try getting to a web site again.

Third step: connect the router to the ‘master’ socket. This is where the phone line comes into the house and looks deeper than the rest.

If the lights  stay flashing, time to ask for help from your internet provider or an expert. The problem might be outside the house or inside.

If it is just one device, then the problem is there.

If you connect via WiFi, can it see any WiFi? If not, is it switched on  (you’d be surprised).

Does it take a long time to connect? Or says ‘limited access’? Delete the connection and reconnect: the password may have got muddled.

Have you ever connected to this network? A common failing of older machines is that they don’t understand later versions of 802.11 or WPA. It is possible to set WEP and slower 802.11 on the router but this is inadvisable due to the decrease in security.

9. I’ve got a low signal or I’m out of range

WiFi has limited  power  so that the public frequency that it’s on can be shared. This means it only effectively goes  less than 50 metres.

Anything between you and the router will reduce the signal. This includes walls, metal filing cabinets, forests and so on. So we need to find another way to get the signal to you. How many bars do you see in ‘network and sharing centre’?

Personally I like homeplug. These are two or more devices that plug into mains sockets that are all on the same fuseboard. One is connected to the router, the signal is carried along the mains  and out it pops at the other device. So anywhere you can get electricity you can get networking. Most of these have ethernet connections, but some have WiFi and broadcast another  WiFi signal themselves.

Another method is a WiFI extender. This is a device that plugs in  to a mains socket for power.  Place it towards the edge of the router’s range and it will rebroadcast the signal to provide wider coverage.

This method relies on being able to place the repeater within range of  both the router and your device.

10. WiFi is slow

This can often be associated with range issues as discussed above.

If you are within range, then consider that WiFi is popular and there are only 13 channels to share. In a residential area in the centre of  town, there may be 10 or 20 networks.

Most routers pick a fixed channel and if  another router is on the same channel, then you have to share. If the other network has a stronger signal than you, they get more ‘space’.

So the best thing to do is try another channel. This involves finding a ‘free’ channel, logging into the router and telling it what channel to use.  The router will switch channel when all the WiFi devices connected are turned off or disconnected.

This is one in a series of guides from the flying doctor to help you  keep your computer safe. Visit our web site to view more.