Common Misconceptions About Computer Networks

Computer in dark office, network lines radiating

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There's no shortage of people offering advice to help teach others about computer networks. For some reason, though, certain facts about networking tend to be misunderstood, generating confusion and bad assumptions. This article describes some of these more commonly-held misconceptions.

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TRUE: Computer Networks Are Useful Even Without Internet Access

Some people assume networking only makes sense for those who have Internet service. While hooking up an Internet connection is standard on many home networks, it is not required. Home networking supports sharing files and printers, streaming music or video, or even gaming among devices in the house, all without Internet access. (Obviously, the ability to get online only adds to a network's capabilities and is increasingly becoming a necessity for many families.)

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FALSE: Wi-Fi Is the Only Kind of Wireless Networking

The terms "wireless network" and "Wi-Fi network" sometimes get used interchangeably. All Wi-Fi networks are wireless, but wireless also includes types of networks built using other technologies such as Bluetooth. Wi-Fi remains by far the most popular choice for home networking, while cell phones and other mobile devices also support Bluetooth, LTE, or others.

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FALSE: Networks Transfer Files at Their Rated Bandwidth Levels

It's logical to assume a Wi-Fi connection rated at 54 Megabit per second (Mbps) is capable of transferring a file of size 54 megabits in one second. In practice, most types of network connections, including Wi-Fi and Ethernet, don't perform anywhere close to their rated bandwidth numbers.

Beside the file data itself, networks also must support features like control messages, packet headers and occasional data retransmissions, each of which can consume significant bandwidth. Wi-Fi also supports a feature called "dynamic rate scaling" that automatically reduces connection speeds down to 50%, 25% or even less of the maximum rating in some situations. For these reasons, 54 Mbps Wi-Fi connections typically transfer file data at rates closer to 10 Mbps. Similar data transfers on Ethernet networks also tend to run at 50% or less of their maximum.

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TRUE: Individuals Can Be Tracked Online by Their IP Address

Although a person's device can theoretically be assigned any public Internet Protocol (IP) address, the systems used to allocate IP addresses on the Internet tie them to geographic location to some extent. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) obtain blocks of public IP addresses from an Internet governing body (the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority – IANA) and supply their customers with addresses from these pools. Customers of an ISP in one city, for example, generally share a pool of addresses with consecutive numbers.

Furthermore, ISP servers keep detailed log records of their IP address assignments mapped to individual customer accounts. When the Motion Picture Association of America took widespread legal actions against Internet peer-to-peer file sharing in years past, they obtained these records from ISPs and were able to charge individual homeowners with specific violations based on the IP address those customers were using at the time.

Some technologies like anonymous proxy servers exist that are designed to hide a person's identity online by preventing their IP address from being tracked, but these have some limitations.

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FALSE: Home Networks Must Have at Least One Router

Installing a broadband router simplifies the process of setting up a home network. Devices can all hook up to this central location through wired and/or wireless connections, automatically creating a local network that enables sharing of files between the devices. Plugging a broadband modem into the router likewise enables automatic Internet connection sharing. All modern routers also include built-in network firewall support that automatically protects all of the devices connected behind it. Finally, many routers include additional options to simply setting up printer sharing, voice over IP (VoIP) systems, and so on.

All of these same functions can technically be accomplished without a router. Two computers can be networked to each other directly as a peer-to-peer connection, or one computer can be designated as the home gateway and configured with Internet and other resource sharing capabilities for multiple other devices. Though routers are obviously time savers and much simpler to maintain, a router-less setup can also work especially for small and/or temporary networks.