Home Computer Networks 101

Guide to wired and wireless home networking

According to a 2015 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, 77% of homes in the U.S had a broadband Internet subscription. While you can still share files between your computers using external hard drives or USB flash drives, you will benefit from a home computer network.

People using a computer

Why You Need a Home Computer Network

A home computer network allows you to share files using the available wired or wireless connections between computers. Home networks enable several users to share printers and an internet connection. With mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, or streaming devices and smart TVs, the value of having a wireless home network expands tremendously.

Planning a New Home Network: Wired vs. Wireless

The home networker can choose either wireless or wired designs. Wireless networks provide more mobility in and around the home, and they make especially good sense for homes with laptops, smartphones, tablets, and smart TVs or streaming devices. Networks with wires or cables, on the other hand, usually cost less than wireless networks, typically perform faster and more reliably, and make good sense for desktop networking. 

  • Wireless networks are the current standard for home networks because of the popularity of wireless devices. Because there is no physical cable attachment needed, many more devices can use the network, and the distance between devices isn't usually a consideration. 
  • Wired networks require physical cable connections between devices, so if you have a single desktop computer with a printer in the same room and no laptop or mobile devices in your home, a wired network may be right for you.

The Router: Centerpiece of the Network

In most home networks, a router is the centerpiece of the network. A cable connects the router to the incoming broadband internet service modem or connection, or it is part of the modem. The router hooks up to each device in the home network (either by wire or wirelessly) when it joins the network for local communications or accesses the internet. Your internet service provider may recommend a router for use with its service or offer to rent or sell one to you.

Many, but not all, routers support both wired and wireless networks. If you need to buy a wireless router, look for one that uses the 802.11ac wireless standard, which is the most current and fastest router standard. If you purchase a router classified as 802.11n, 802.11 g, or 802.11b, the speed of your network connections will be slower — in some cases, much slower. If you are looking for a router that also handles wired connections, look for a mention of "Ethernet ports" or "wired LAN ports."

Routers ship with default usernames and passwords. Follow the documentation that comes with your router to change that information and then tape it to the bottom of the router. You may never need it again, but it will be there when you do.

Internet Service Provider

The majority of home networkers want to share an internet connection. Depending on where you live, you might have several forms of broadband (high-speed) internet service to choose from, including cable, fiber, DSL, or satellite internet service. In some areas, there might be only one option. In each case, you have a monthly service charge from the internet service provider for access to the internet.

Shopping for a service provider is a balancing act between cost and upload and download speeds. If you plan on streaming movies or TV shows, you need a fast download speed. For example, although Netflix recommends a 1.5 megabit per second broadband connection speed, it requires a 5.0 Mbps connection for HD quality or a vast 25 Mbps download speed for Ultra HD quality. If you own a late model smart TV, download speed is an important consideration. However, if you don't stream media, lower download speed can handle most network tasks. Your service provider will likely offer more than one option and allow you to make a change if you decide you need to change your service plan later.

Purchasing Home Network Equipment

In addition to the router and subscribing to an internet service, you might need to purchase additional equipment, mainly if your network is wireless:

  • Network adapters. Most new computers and all modern mobile devices have built-in wireless networking capability. However, if you have older equipment that isn't so equipped, you may need to buy a network adapter or card to make the connection on that device. 
  • Range extender or repeater. If your home is large or you want to be able to sit outside and access your network, adding a range extender will boost the router signal beyond its usual range.

Assembling Your Home Network

After you have the needed equipment, assembling the home network should be straightforward. However, the exact details will vary depending on the network's design. In particular, wireless network connections involve different installation methods than wired ones.

Set up the network centerpiece first — usually the router – and then configure each of the computers and other devices to join the network one at a time. For wired devices, use an Ethernet cable to connect each device to the router. Use an online wireless home network tutorial for guidance when assembling a wireless network.

For example, many smartphones and tablets have a Settings section with a Wi-Fi entry. Look there to see if the device detects the presence of your wireless network. You'll be required to enter the router password the first time you log on to the new network, and then your device connects whenever it is in range of the network automatically.

Home Network Security

Hooking a home network to the internet can be dangerous. If you can access information on the public internet, it's also possible for others to access your data. Fortunately, several technologies are available to keep your home network safe from hackers—bottom line: everyone should install network security features on their home networks.

Routers ship with security features that are often enabled automatically. Check the documentation that came with your router to confirm this. It is the first and most effective line of defense against online attackers. Also, using firewalls on individual devices provides an additional layer of protection. In the case of mobile devices that travel away from the protected home network, firewalls and anti-virus software are essential.

Troubleshooting a Home Network

Installing a home network for the first time could be frustrating, but the frustration passes when you understand the basics, and your system is running. If you don't feel up to building your network, call on a service that will come to your home to set up your network for you.

Once you properly configure the network with every device, it should run in the background for years to come without any effort from you. After you are familiar with networking and what works best in your home, you might want to look into upgrades for your home network.