Go Wireless With a Router

Linksys 802.11ac router

Many of you already have a router for your home or office network. And some of you use your router for wireless connectivity with the Internet, and of course many of you do both. Routers can be a mystery to many people so I’ve tried to bring down the cobwebs of this device so it can be seen more clearly.

Before routers entered the home arena, they primarily were the backbone of network interconnectivity throughout the Internet. In order for a message to get sent from one location, perhaps on the east coast, to another location 3000 miles away on the west coast, that message would have to travel through several routers. Routers are the interface between networks. It is the traffic cop that “knows” which is the best network to route that message to as our message continues its 3000 mile trek toward its destination. And this process continues until the message finds its destination. Using that technology has been very beneficial for the home user, whether the need is for a personal home network or an office network, at a cost that most people can afford.

Perhaps one of the best investments you can make is purchasing a router, sometimes they’re also called a WAP (wireless access point). For around $80 you can buy a decent router and it will definitely add capabilities to your PC and smartphone that you did not possess before. The latest wireless standard is 802.11ac, which is about three times faster than the previous standard, 802.11n. 802.11ac is backwards compatible, meaning it can be used for older PCs that do not have the 802.11ac yet. If you need to purchase a router, you can buy the 802.11ac one, but it will cost more money. You actually would do fine getting a 802.11n version since benefiting from this speed increase will only occur if your PC also has a network card at the 802.11ac standard. More new PCs have it, but only a small number of PCs industry-wide actually have it installed.

Routers are multi-functional. They can be used for:

  • Home/office network
  • Wireless connectivity for your home/office PC
  • Wireless connectivity for your smartphone

As far as which companies make the best routers, that is really a judgement call, but some of the more popular routers are made Linksys, D-Link, Netgear, and Belkin.

Home/Office Network

One of the big advantages of having a router is being able to connect multiple PCs together, whether they are desktops or laptops. And if one of your PCs is a laptop, you can have it wirelessly connected to the Internet and surf the Web from anywhere in your home or office. Routers add a strong convenience factor and flexibility to your computing environment. You can have your home or office network wired together with Cat-5 cabling and/or you can set it up for wireless connectivity. This is great for sharing files between the PCs on your network or if you have a printer, you can have each PC share that networked printer.

To wire your network, you’ll need a few Cat-5 cables that you should be able to purchase where you purchased the router. Plug one end of a Cat-5 cable to your cable modem and the other end of that cable  into the router jack labled, “Internet”, located on the back of the router. The various PCs you will have on the network plug into one of the Ethernet jacks labled on the back of the router as well. When you first configure the router, you’ll plug it into one of these Ethernet jacks. Each router has an interface program which has all of the options/choices for operation, and many also have a quick start guide which will allow you to leave several of the options at their preset default values, so you’ll really only need to select a few choices to get it up and running in just a few minutes.

Wireless PC Connectivity

Let’s look at it first in terms of using it for wireless usage. Many of you know that you can use a public wireless (WiFi) hot spot (Starbuck’s or any Internet Café) to connect your laptop to the Internet. If you desire to connect to the Internet using wireless connectivity while you’re at home, purchasing a router is the way to go. Once you have your router set up for wireless operation, it is simply a matter of selecting your router amongst the list of routers you will see listed, and connecting to it.

Wireless Smartphone Connectivity

Not only can you use it for a wireless connection to the Internet for your PC, you can also use it as a wireless connection for your smartphone. Many people like this feature if they live in an area where there isn’t any cell phone tower coverage. On your phone you simply go into the settings menu and configure the phone for wireless operation. On a voice call, the wireless  part of the call if from your phone to your router. Since the router is wired to your cable modem, the voice call continues from the router to the cable modem and out through your cable line onto the Internet. It’s simple to do and just about all phones now have wireless capability. Most phones with wireless capability will also keep track of how many wireless minutes you have used as well. And if you’re consuming a lot of voice minutes through your cell phone carrier’s cellular network, by using the router to go wireless, you just might lower enough of your voice call minutes to drop down to a lower priced carrier plan, thus saving you money.

Avoid Router hijacking-Use Password Protection

You could be a victim of neighborhood bandwidth hijacking. It is quite common for nearby users in one’s neighborhood to tap into your router’s signal and connect to the Internet using your router’s bandwidth. Other people using your router not only causes your wireless performance to suffer, you are in essence giving them free Internet access. The way to combat this is to put password protection on your router. You can set up the password protection by going into the router settings as well as choosing the best type of encryption method.

Wireless Encryption

Data encryption discussed here is for the wireless portion of the data path. Once the data enters a wired path, the data is decrypted before traveling further. There are two methods for encrypting your data; WPA and WEP. WPA is a much stronger encryption method and thus much more secure. You would be better off selecting WPA as your encryption choice since the encryption key is changing regularly versus WEP, where the encryption key never changes, and is much easier to hack.

Improve your performance by experimenting

Play around with the router’s external antenna, if it has one. Move the antenna to various angles (45 degrees, 90 degrees, etc)and observe what it does to your performance. Some performance improvements as high as 20 percent are possible by these adjustments.

Relocate your router to various locations in the house, if possible. If you have more than one location for the cable outlet, that will make it easy. You can also get a splitter and split the cable into a Y configuration and run additional cabling to various locations throughout the house. If you have several PCs throughout the house, try to visualize a location that is central to all of them and establish that is the router location. That is much better than having all of your PCs on one floor and having the router down in the basement. Distance and obstructions can affect the signal.

Get Firmware Upgrades for Better Performance

If you purchased your own router for your Internet usage, check the router manufacturer web site for firmware updates since these updates often results in performance improvements. Check if one is available for your model by locating the model# printed on the underside of the unit. Enter the model# and see if there are any upgrades to the firmware. If there are, download and install the upgrade and you will more than likely experience some performance improvement. If your cable (high-speed broadband) provider is also providing a router for your usage, contact them and see if a firmware upgrade is available. Sometimes, rather than issue a firmware upgrade, your cable provider may simply swap your unit with a newer version, which often results in a performance increase.

Buying a router is one of the best investments you’ll make for your home computing environment. Compared to the various advantages, the cost is minimal and once it’s set up and running, you’ll be very glad you did. If you’ll be using it with several PCs and various users, purchase the most expensive router you can since the more expensive ones usually handle the additional bandwidth drain better than low-end routers. If you have an older PC that does not have a wireless network adapter card, you can usually find them at the same stores that sell routers. Many of the newer ones are very small and easy to install: just plug it into a USB slot on your PC. Once you begin experiencing wireless operation and the flexibility of using your laptop in any location of your household, you’ll wonder how you did without it for all these years!

Benefit by Using WiFi With Your Cell Phone

Does your cell phone bill ever go down? Not in a million years, right? And I know a number of people who have to keep going to a higher tier plan because of all the minutes they consume. One of the best tips I can think of for saving those precious phone plan minutes is using WiFi to make calls. 

2 Good reasons for Using WiFi to Make Calls

  • Using WiFi does not count toward your "on-air" phone plan minutes.
  • If you live in an area where you don't get a good signal, or maybe a completely non-existent signal, going to WiFi could solve the problem since you're not using a cell phone tower.

Get a Router for Home WiFi

Okay, here's the downside, although it's not too down. If you don't already have a wireless router/WAP (Wireless Access Point), you will need one if you use your cell phone frequently at your house. You can get a good wireless router at an electronics or PC store for about $70, along with a Cat-5 cable (a few dollars) to connect the router to your cable modem. 

When you make a call, you are going from your phone to the router wirelessly, and the router sends the voice data over a connected Internet line via your cable modem. Also keep in mind that you can connect to a WiFi public hotspot with the phone, just like you can with your laptop, so if you're in a Starbucks having coffee, you're all set. 

Most of the cell phones now have WiFi capability. Go into your phone's System Settings to locate it. If this is a challenge, your phone manual will tell you exactly how to find it on your specific model. Once you've found it, make sure to enable it. I have an LG Viper smartphone, and it will also keep track of how many minutes I used the WiFi, a great feature that I love. You should not notice much of a difference using the WiFi in terms of call quality; in fact the quality is quite good. 

Other Router Benefits

There's also a non-phone related side benefit to having the router. Now you can compute from anywhere in the house. If you enjoy sitting on the couch in the living room while computing, you can now do it and surf the Web. You can also relocate your desktop PC to a better location if its current spot is not to your liking. If you've purchased a PC within the last few years, it probably has WiFi capability. If not you can purchase an adapter for it for about $30 dollars.

There are a number of benefits to using WiFi and who knows, it just might make the difference in your phone bill so you don't have to buy that more expensive plan. That should definitely put a smile on your face.

How Startups Install a Small Business PC Network

Those of you with a small business, perhaps even a new startup, may be wondering how to setup your PC network and even the thought of networking them together is making you feel queezy as if it's one daunting task. Well, fear not because it is not that difficult to do; only time and perhaps a little planning will do the trick successfully.

Decide on how many PCs you will need to take care of daily business. For many small business owners, this number may be five or fewer. Let's look at this scenario today and take it one step at a time, okay?

If you've got the PCs already, great; that's one big step out of the way. If you don't, you can often get a business discount at a major electronics reseller, especially if you're purchasing multiple units. HP, Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo, just to name a few brands, would be viable candidates for the job.

Install Options

  • If you're concerned about the install and ongoing technical support,  sometimes purchasing the hardware from a nearby local PC dealer is the best way to go. Those companies that offer an ongoing maintenance support contract as part of the deal can often be a cost-effective way to keep your PCs in good working order. Just make sure you check out their reputation before doing it. That's important!

  • If you've already purchased and decided to go with a third-party extended warranty, with the plan of doing the install yourself, that is not a bad idea either. Shop around for the best deal possible since you're purchasing multiple PCs. Now you're ready to install if you've chosen to do it yourself.

Materials needed

  • The most materials needed are Cat-5 cables, one each for each PC-Router connection, as well as a few extra cables as spares
  • A router specifically designed for small home networks (I recommend a Linksys wireless router if you want a good realiable unit and easy set-up)
  • Some electrical tape or tie wraps, which you can purchase at most electronics/hardware stores
  • A tape measure for measuring the length needed for each cable
  • Paper and pen for drawing a sketch of your network setup. You will need to identify where each PC will be located and the location of the router. You will also need to ascertain how many feet of cable will be needed for each PC to router connection.  This sketch should be the first thing you do. Before you go to the store to get the cables, you will need to know how long each cable needs to be so you can make the appropriate cable length purchase choice.

Install Procedure

  1. The install begins by unboxing and setting-up each PC one by one. Before you move on to the second setup, you should already have sketched out a drawing that shows where each PC will be located as well as the router. The best place for the router should be close to where your cable modem or DSL connection is located. As mentioned earlier, the sketch needs to include the length in feet from each PC to the router. Purchasing a router for a small network is relatively easy. You can find some good Linksys routers at many electronics stores at a very reasonable price. 
  2. The next step is to run the cabling. You'll need Cat-5 twisted pair cables.  How long the cables will need to be, and how many needed should be easy to figure if you did that sketch of your setup as mentioned earlier. Are you operating your business from your home? Sometimes a cost-effective way to run the Cat-5 cabling is by going underneath the house and drilling a hole through the floor and running the cable up through it. It's either that or run the cabling through the walls, and that job, although doable, can be very time-consuming. A not so bad choice might be to hire an electrician or multimedia specialist to do that for you, who can terminate the connection at a wall-outlet. 
  3. Get the tape or tie wraps and wrap the various cords at each PC station and tuck them out of the way, or secure the wrapped cable bunch to the underside of the PC desk. I cannot tell you the number of times I have disconnected a cable from sitting at the PC, stretched out and pulled something loose with my foot. Don't laugh, it happens!
  4. The next step is configuring the router. Follow the instructions supplied and you should be able to connect your first PC to it without a problem. 
  5. Continue with the second PC, and the remaining ones, until all have connections to the router. 

Troubleshooting

If you're not seeing all of the PCs on the network as shown in Windows, verify that the PC cable is securely connected to the router. Look at the back of each PC where the Cat-5 cable connects and look for an illuminated indicator light. If you have connectivity with any of the PCs to the router and still have a connection problem with another PC, it's not the router. It's either a bad cable or it's the PC. Replace the cable with a spare and recheck. If you're still having a problem, take the PC back to the store and get it fixed. Do not try to fix the unit yourself; you may void the warranty.

If you have a problem with the install, contact me and if you live within driving distance of Columbia, SC, and if I'm available, I will take care of it myself, or will have a colleague take care of it for you with a professional installation and at a reasonable, competitive price. The same holds true if the above scenario does not apply to you; you are in a rented business office space and require a T-1 line for data and/or phone system. 

I wish you the best and good luck!