How to Build and Maintain the Best Home Network

The ideal network is one that's fast, secure, and reliable

Smart Home
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With just a little time and effort, anyone can set up a basic home computer network. Simple home networks, though, provide only a small fraction of the capability that an advanced network does.

Getting the most out of your home network requires investing in better hardware and additional software, and keeping up with the latest industry trends.

Upgrade Home Internet Service

Most internet providers offer a range of service plans at different price points. Subscribing to your provider’s basic plans might save a few dollars each month but ultimately cost you much more in terms of time and convenience. Even small increases in data rates can shave valuable minutes off of long downloads or finally make it possible for you to stream entire Netflix movies without glitches.

Here's what to do:

  • Get familiar with all high-speed internet services available in your area. Ask neighbors for recommendations, search on dslreports.com, and watch for advertisements of any new providers opening for business. Among the many home internet connection alternatives, fiber is especially desirable.
  • Upgrade your internet service plan to the best available, changing providers if necessary. Note that the best home internet service isn’t necessarily the one with the largest Mbps rating (the most bandwidth). The network latency (sometimes called ping) of internet connections has an equal if not greater effect on overall responsiveness. Network reliability — services with minimal downtimes or sudden major degradations of performance — is also essential.
  • Consider subscribing to a business-class internet service if one's available. In return for a higher price tag, business internet customers receive better technical support and more plan options such as higher upload speeds. These plans also usually don't impose bandwidth caps.
  • Use cellular internet as a fallback option during outages with your home’s primary service. Subscribing to a data plan that supports tethering lets you share the internet access of a smartphone across the entire network, effectively turning the cell phone into a modem.

Master Home Network Hardware Plumbing

New hardware products arrive on the home networking scene frequently. Understanding what new capabilities they offer is essential to planning future upgrades. Your existing home network equipment can function and provide “good enough” support for many years, but maintaining the best home network setup requires much more frequent updating.

The best home networks use both wireless and wired networking methods. Broadband routers serve as the centerpiece of these home networks, supporting both Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections. These routers have gradually evolved in form and function over the years and continue to add new capabilities.

Broadband modems plug into these routers to enable the router and the home network for broadband internet service. Products that integrate a broadband router and modem into a single package — called internet gateways — offer similar functionality in a smaller physical footprint.

Some peripheral equipment on a home network (like network printers) connect through Wi-Fi or Ethernet while others connect using Bluetooth wireless or USB. Each kind of home network device offers a slightly different user interface and setup procedure for making these connections, though most devices connect with Wi-Fi.

These all follow the same basic principles: the device must locate the router, have the right security settings to be eligible to join the network, and obtain a valid IP address.

Here's what to do:

  • Use routers that support the latest standard version of Wi-Fi (currently, 802.11ac). If your network includes, or will include in the near future, more than one client that connects through 5 GHz Wi-Fi, use a tri-band Wi-Fi router.
  • Determine whether your home network should have a single router only, whether you should use a two-router setup, or whether you need a mesh network system. Which one of these options is best depends on the home situation. 
  • Install broadband router and broadband modem hardware separately; do not use internet gateways. Managing these as separate units gives you many more router models to choose from when you're upgrading.
  • Learn and follow best practices for home network setup, including where to place routers.
  • Consider upgrading the router every year or two to pick up the latest-and-greatest technology. Although modem technology does not change nearly as often as on routers, watch for new developments here also and be ready to upgrade your modem when your provider upgrades its network (applicable especially to DOCSIS cable modems).

    Maximize Value of the Home Network Through Applications

    The best home networks employ an automatic backup system. Home network backups make copies of valuable data stored on different devices in the home and save it in a different location. Online backup services help automate the process and provide a cloud storage environment, but you can also build a robust home backup environment using Network Attached Storage devices, a good alternative solution for people who may be uncomfortable sending their family photos to remote data centers.

    Wireless webcams have improved in video quality and reduced in price over the years to the point where no good home network should be without one. Installing and enabling webcams for either indoor or outdoor surveillance is not difficult and helps bring family peace of mind.

    Home automation systems existed even before Wi-Fi, but the two are now heavily integrated. Programmable control over home lighting using the home network is one example of the convenience that home automation can bring. Wi-Fi connected smart thermostats that a person can manage through a smartphone, even while away from home, are not only convenient but also can save money on utility bills.

    Here's what to do:

    • Every home network needs a backup system to prevent family photos and other important digital information from being lost. Make it a priority to put one in place, whether by installing internal storage like a second hard drive or an external HDD, or by subscribing to an online backup service.
    • Households enjoy different opinions about which network applications are most important to them. Consider the many possibilities that exist in the market and prioritize which ones your family wants to set up first. Continue extending your home network with new applications every few months — development of a home network is never truly "done."

    Don’t Cut Corners on Network Security

    Nobody likes spending time on their home network security setup, but it only takes one security incident to cause major problems for a family. Home network security starts with the Wi-FI network security technologies like WPA2. When you're unpacking a new router and plugging it in for the first time, Wi-Fi security might be completely disabled. Households can potentially install and run their Wi-Fi networks without ever activating appropriate security safeguards.

    All network routers lock their configuration settings behind an administrator user account. You must know the administrator username and password combination in order to log in. To simplify this process for the initial home network setup, router manufacturers give their products standard default usernames and passwords (ones that are well-known and published on the internet — they're even listed here: Linksys, NETGEAR, D-Link, Cisco).

    Another standard security mechanism, network firewalls, protects a home network from malicious traffic incoming from the internet. Broadband routers contain built-in network firewalls and keep them enabled by default. Computers often also have their own firewalls (like Windows Firewall) in place.

    Most modern home routers include support for guest networking. Setting up a guest network only takes a few minutes and is the ideal way to open up your network to household visitors without compromising your security setup.

    Here's what to do:

    • Learn and follow best practices for wireless home network security. From careful password management to enabling WPA2 with good choice of keys, error on the side of over protecting rather than under protecting.
    • Ensure that not only your router has a firewall but any computer connected to the internet has one installed, too. There are lots of free firewall programs available for installation.
    • Use guest networks whenever possible to accommodate visitors rather than giving them full access to your home network. Turn off guest networking when not using it to avoid unnecessary security risks.