Home Networking: Basics

This article provides a brief introduction to home networking, covering both wired and wireless networking. The article is intended for complete beginners, but we believe that even more experienced readers can learn something new from it.

Wired Networking

A wired network consists of devices physically connected to one another using network cables. These days, most wired networks use Ethernet cables, which are available in several different categories for a variety of purposes.

Perhaps the simplest wired network you may come across consists of two personal computers connected to each other using an Ethernet cable. To add more computers to such network, a router may be used to facilitate the communication between all members of the network. A router is a networking device that forwards data packets between computer networks until the packets reach their destination.

Very large wired networks often involve several routers or switches, the latter being networking devices that receive, process, and forward data packets on a computer network to destination devices. At least one router or switch is typically connected to a modem that provides Internet access to all devices connected to the network.

Pure wired networks are sometimes used for security and privacy reasons. Since data packets on such networks only flow through network cables, it’s much more difficult for attackers to gain unauthorized access or sniff sensitive information.

Wireless Networking

Wireless networking provides a modern alternative to traditional wired networking, one that avoids the costly process of introducing cables into a building while providing a much greater flexibility when it comes to establishing a connection between various devices on the network.

What Is a Wireless Network?

A wireless network is any computer network that uses wireless data connections between individual network nodes. The absence of a physical connection between nodes introduces several difficulties. In contrast to wired networks, which typically use shielded Ethernet cables, wireless networks are frequently subject to electromagnetic interference.

This interference can be caused by other wireless networks in the same area and also by common household appliances or other types of equipment that generate radio waves. Electromagnetic interference negatively affects the signal strength and quality, often leading to the loss of data packets or sudden connection drops.

Wireless networks are limited in range, and it may not be immediately obvious how far a wireless network reaches. For this reason, many network administrators and regular home users alike use wireless network mapping and troubleshooting apps like NetSpot.

With a few clicks, NetSpot can create a visual map that shows exactly how far a wireless network reaches, highlighting all the areas of weak signal strength. NetSpot can also detect and analyze nearby wireless networks to help you eliminate problems caused by signal interference. Best of all, NetSpot can be downloaded for free, and its user interface is so simple and well-thought-out that everyone can use this popular wireless network troubleshooting solution to improve their network.

Types of Wireless Networks

There are several types of wireless networks as well as underlying wireless technologies. Some types of wireless networks, such as Personal Area Network (PAN), have a very limited range, while other types of wireless networks, such as Wide Area Network (WAN), extend over a large geographical distance.

By far the most ubiquitous type of wireless networks is Local Area Network (LAN), which relies on a set of media access control (MAC) and physical layer (PHY) specifications known as IEEE 802.11, or WiFi.

How WiFi Works?

WiFi networks communicate in the 2.4, 3.6, 5, and 60 GHz frequency bands using the IEEE 802.11 standard, which is created and maintained by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) LAN/MAN Standards Committee (IEEE 802).

A typical WiFi network consists of a wireless router and one or more wireless clients. The router may or may not provide access to the Internet. If it does, it is connected to a cable modem via the Internet port, also known as Wide-Area Network (WAN) port.

When a wireless client sends out data, such as a request to load a certain web page, the data are encoded to a radio frequency supported by the wireless router and transmitted over the air. The wireless router then processes the request by decoding the signal back to binary data.

WiFi Standards

The newest generation of WiFi devices uses the IEEE 802.11ac standard, which was published in December 2013. Compared to some of the previous wireless networking standards, such as 802.11n (sometimes known as Wireless N), or 802.11g (which is still the only supported wireless networking standard by many older devices), the 802.11ac standard offers much higher speeds, support for beamforming (directional signal transmission or reception), and up to eight MIMO spatial streams for the simultaneous transmission of wireless signals from different antennas.

WiFi Security

Because anyone with a WiFi-enabled computer can capture wireless data packets and try to recover sensitive information from them, WiFi security is a topic of critical importance.

The most common types of wireless security algorithms are Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). The former algorithm was introduced in 1997, and it is now considered to be insecure. In fact, there are readily available apps that allow anyone with a smartphone to decrypt all communication on a WiFi network secured with the WEP algorithm with a few taps on the screen.

Because of its insufficient security, WEP was superseded by WPA in 2003. A year later, WPA2 was introduced as even more secure and complex wireless security algorithm, and it has remained the standard for WiFi security to this day.

As important as WiFi security is for private wireless networks, it’s importance is even greater when it comes to public WiFi hotspots, which are physical locations where people may obtain Internet access by connecting to a wireless local area network (WLAN) using an Internet-connected WiFi router that acts as an access point, a device that allows clients to wirelessly connect to a wired network.

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