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Connecting to the internet is often taken for granted nowadays, but it hasn't always been so easy. The internet is an extraordinarily complex thing that humans have created. It involves multiple moving parts that have to work in perfect sync for it to work. The reason for this is that data on the internet is gathered from everywhere at once, and it is passed-on by numerous electronic devices before reaching your computer. For those who remember gaming in the days before 56kBit modems can attest to the amount of effort it took to connect and stay connected. In fact, computer networking has become a specialization of it's own. Fortunately, things have become smoother, and it now appears almost seamless to connect to ever-present 'internet'. Let's go over what you will need to make everything work, when you're starting your own network for the first time.
Connecting to the Internet
From Your ISP to You
The internet is first and foremost a wired connection, despite wifi or satellite connections. This is because the data on the internet is located on physical servers that exchange information them, ultimately via a connection of wires and fiber optics. It is then distributed to clients by commercial companies called ISP for Internet Service Providers. Most of the time,they gives you access to the internet via your phone line or cable line. This line comes directly from your ISP to you and straight into your home. Of course, there are multiple shared junction boxes to distribute this signal throughout the city, but your line is your own. That's why your internet first arrives in your home via a wire, before being distributed into a Wireless signal (WiFi). But let's not skip ahead, the line has to first go through a modem, once inside your home.
You will also need at least 2 'Ethernet wires' to complete your setup. One to go from your modem to your router and one to go from your router to your computer for the initial setup, before the wifi is activated, and in case of emergencies. If you want to permanently connect your computer to the network, bypassing the unstable and slower WiFi, you will need an additional ethernet cable per computer. Ethernet cables should cost less than 5$ each, depending on length.
What is a modem?
The modem is the first electronic component to receive the internet in your home from a wire. It usually connects via a coaxial cable or in your phone's landline (via DSL). It converts the signal found in this wire coming from your ISP and transforms it into the standard wired connection for internet: the 'ethernet' connector.
Your choice in modems
Most of the time, the modem is provided and imposed by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), depending on your internet plan. Therefore, your only way to choose a good modem is to choose a according to the reliability of your internet company. Depending on the plan you choose with them, the modem will be of better of bigger capacity. The ISP company will usually send a technician to install and connect this device for you free of charge.
Types of contracts for modems
Make sure to know if your modem is begin sold, rented or lent to you, as this could make a difference in your total costs. It is often lent (for free) for the term of your contract plan, but you have to give it back to them at the end of the contract otherwise your will be charged for it. If they sell it to you, your first bill will be a bit salty, between 50$ to 150$ depending on the type of modem. If it is being rented,then you will pay for the rental of the modem every month, and you will end up paying more than the total, unless specifically mentioned otherwise.
Finding a Good Wireless Router
The router is the second device connected to the internet in your home. It takes the single Ethernet connector from the modem output and share this connection with other devices in your home, wired and wireless. This is the main device that creates the 'WiFi' in your home, and to which your phone, computer, game console and TVs all connect to. It not only distributes the internet from the modem to many devices, but it also secures your connection with encryption and a ton of invisible security features. Therefore it is important to choose a reliable and efficient, but durable and sturdy router. This is the device you connect to, when you want internet access wirelessly, but you can usually also connect a few (4-6) wired computers in mainstream routers. It is important to note that wired connections to the router are still faster and more stable than WiFi connections, even if they are older.
A good router will usually cost around 75$ to 150$, but some ISP have modems which also distribute the signal wirelessly across multiple computers, albeit not ideal. If it is your router, you'll have control over the distribution priorities of your bandwidth (the amount of data streamed at once), which you won't have with a 2-in-1 modem and router. You can pick any router in that price range, but make sure it is from a known brand such as linksys, netgear, D-Link or TP-Link to ensure reliability.
Connection speeds of routers
There are two mainstream speeds at this time: the 54Gbps and 300Gbps. Any of them will suit your needs for mostly everything: from streaming movies to transferring data, downloading, gaming and remote-access. Better and faster speeds are coming up, but prices are prohibitive for the moment.
There is also a distinction to be made between single-channel, dual-channel and triple-channel routers. The number of simultaneous channels, will multiply the number of streams transmitted at-once, hence increasing the overall connection speed. This usually means that the router has a separate antenna for each 'simultaneous' stream.
There are also two different bands: the older 802.11-G band at 2.4Ghz, and the newer 802.11-N band at 5Ghz. In short, they have different frequencies to allow better connections in crowded areas. The N routers are usually retro-compatible with G bands and can work at both frequencies at once, so this is the best choice.
Finally, the placement of the router and the structure of the house, will also have an impact on the performances of your router. For optimal antenna placement, try to point one in each axis: vertical, horizontal, and forward.
Make sure to secure your network with a strong password and a WPA2 security encryption. A strong password is made of numbers, letters and symbols, that is longer than 10 characters without begin obvious for a stranger. You can setup this information in the control panel of your router, which you can access by typing '192.168.1.1' (wifi connected) or '192.168.0.1' (LAN connected) in your web browser. The default username (usually admin) and password (can be 'root' or 'admin' or empty) will be written in the user manual, on the manufacturer's website or on Wikipedia. Make sure to change those to a secure and private username and password and note it somewhere private near the router This is only to access the configuration of your router. It is also nice to put a visible tag on the WiFi with the name and password for guest logins into the wifi.
Finding a good WiFi Adapter
The easiest way to connect to your router and the internet is with a USB WiFi dongle. Choose one that has a wire long enough for you to position it properly to find the best signal, in case it's far from the router. Also make sure that is has the same speed (54G or 300G) and same number of simultaneous channels as your router. You can find agood WiFi adapter for bewteen 50$ and 100$. You should ideally have an adapter of the same brand and speed types as the router. Otherwise, it may still work, but it may not be the most optimal or stable connection ever.
Give new Life to your Old Routers
To get the most out of your router, we highly recommend that you update the firmware of your your router to a custom one, such as DD-WRT. This will multiply the functionalities of your router and unlock features that were locked out due to proprietary software restrictions. It will also increase security, as there are day-zero vulnerabilities in almost all mainstream routers. Additionally, the code is open-source and collectively validated, so there are no intentional back-doors built into it. Updating the firmware to a custom one, has some inherent difficulties tho, so make sure you have an expert on hand and have researched the specifics of doing so on your specific hardware. The benefits outweigh the risks, but you should know that the worse case scenario is only that your router will no longer work and the warranty will be void.
Theoretically, you can even convert an old router into a wireless receiving adapter, but the speed will be limited to the oldest router in the setup. Find out more about custom firmwares at lifehacker.com
If you have a WRT54G or WRT54GL, like most of use have used at one point in our lives, you should still be fine for a while. This old and robust router with a familiar blue look, is among the most robust there is. However, they were quite limited in speed, bandwidth and security, so you should consider upgrading some time soon. This one is a 54Gbps, single band modem, with only G band network ability. Depending on the iteration, there may be slowdowns with WPA2 security, and cheaper models have very low amounts of RAM that may cause disconnects, but it is a very good modem for it's time.
Linksys WRT 600N or E-3000
A newer generation of 300 Gbps modem with dual simultaneous N-band and G-band network connections. Durable, stylish and fast, with USB connection for printers or network-attached storage (NAS).
What you need to look for in a router:
- A known brand like Linksys, Netgear, D-Link or TP-Link
- Dual or Triple simultaneous channels and same amount of antennae
- N-band (5Ghz) and G-band (2.4 Ghz) ability
You will also need:
- Two LAN cables for setup (at least one should be included with the router)
- A matching USB adapter of the same brand with similar specs in terms of speed, band and simultaneous channels (usually not included)