We asked Fritz Werder, vice president and general manager of the renowned OnQ and NuVo product lines at Legrand, to give us a primer on why wireless is not the be-all end-all in today’s home networks. Here’s what he had to say:
Bill Gates once famously said that no one would ever need more than 64K of memory in their personal computer. Right! Today we live in a world of megabytes and gigabytes, and they fly around our homes at close to the speed of light.
At least, that’s what we’d like them to do. But without the right planning, the reality might not meet those expectations.
Our homes have now evolved, with the home network acting as the hub. According to a report from an industry analyst firm in 2013, the average home has more than 5.7 Internet-connected devices, and we use them for far more than just checking e-mail or chatting with friends.
Through our networks, we can use our phones, tablets or other portables to control our heating and air conditioning systems. We can use them to activate and deactivate our home security systems. We even can use them to access our homes through IP-based security cameras to monitor what’s going on inside.
And then there are our entertainment systems, which are beginning to dominate our home networks. The demands of entertainment networking are far greater than moving simple data. Entertainment content requires many times the bandwidth in order to ensure the flawless transmission of audio and video to our PCs, our televisions, tablets and phones. And that need for bandwidth continues to increase; after all, we’re storing and streaming all kinds of content from “the cloud,” such as audio, video, interactive games and more. Our televisions are bigger and have faster refresh rates than ever before, and Netflix just announced it’s started streaming 4K content.
To keep pace with this revolution, service providers – cable companies, telcos, etc. – have spent billions of dollars upgrading the infrastructure that connects the cloud to your home. Unfortunately, your home’s infrastructure probably has not received as much attention or investment. And while many people believe that they can simply stream absolutely everything wirelessly around the house, they have come to experience this harsh reality: Wireless has its undeniable place, but home networks, with all the mega-content running through them, are best served by employing a hybrid approach that uses both a wired backbone for high-bandwidth content and also engages wireless when appropriate for mobile devices.
Why? For two reasons: Because structured wiring is the fastest and most reliable way to transmit content, and because the bandwidth for wireless is far more limited. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
Few new homes are pre-wired by builders to accommodate the true high-demand home networks. Many now offer a few network ports throughout the home, but those are designed for computer use only. Additional wiring may be offered as an option, but most consumers do not know there is a difference, and thus are not aware of the shortcomings of not adding this capability. There are various cabling options available, and you may have heard of, or be familiar with, the terms Cat5 or Cat6. These are the wires that create the Ethernet network in your home.
Existing homes present a different challenge because the vast majority are not wired with Ethernet to accommodate today’s content-heavy demands. Yet this challenge is hardly insurmountable; in fact, there are several technologies that allow us to take advantage of the infrastructure that may already exist in our homes, namely coaxial cables and your home’s standard electrical system, to create that Ethernet network.
MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance) is an emerging technology that allows the coax cable that may already be connecting your TV with your cable box to also act as your network cable. According to Parks Associates, 80 percent of homes already have coax in multiple rooms.
Technically, a coax network is well-suited to carrying a MoCA signal, which travels on a frequency band unused by cable TV transmissions. The MoCA standard was originally formed back in 2004; the prevalent standard is version 1.1, which has a maximum throughput of 170 Mbps. However the emerging 2.0 standard is able to achieve throughputs of up to 800 Mbps.
To give you a sense of perspective and need, many in-home networking devices recommend a throughput of 500 Mbps for streaming of a 1080p video.
With the emergence of multi-room DVRs, many content providers already use these coax networks to enable communications to TVs around the home. But independent of the service provider, homeowners can also use coax networks to connect any Ethernet-enabled device to the web to stream movies, games, videos and music from platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and Pandora.
For homes without Ethernet wiring or coax cabling – or in cases where that wiring is not convenient or accessible – your home’s electrical system can double as your network cable.
Huh, you say? What’s the catch?
There is none. While this may not be the first option for creating your Ethernet network, the HomePlug Powerline Alliance has developed and refined this technology to enable your electrical system to transmit signals at speeds exceeding 500 Mbps.
What’s more, of all the commercially-available home networking options (both wired and wireless), powerline modules are the easiest to install and configure. All you need to do is connect one powerline module’s Ethernet port to your router and then plug the module it into a nearby electrical outlet. Then simply plug a second powerline module into another outlet in your home, and in seconds you have a network connection into which you can connect your device.
While powerline technology has gained substantial fanfare over the last few years, it’s still vulnerable to interference, and some homes’ electrical configuration may create obstructions. But in many homes, it could be exactly what the doctor ordered.
The role of wireless
According to a leading research firm, 61 percent of U.S. households now have WiFi networks. So obviously, wireless plays a significant role. In fact, there is a certain fad-ism that has surrounded wireless. After all, why have wires if you don’t need them? For many applications, that is a legitimate question.
But the fact is that you may still need wires. Like any other delivery system, wireless has its limitations, not the least of which affect performance. WiFi has limited bandwidth. There are a limited number of channels in the broadcast spectrum where data can be transmitted, and as the number of devices occupying that wireless space increase, so does the amount of traffic. So in areas of high signal density, bandwidth can run short – especially during peak usage hours. This results in a decrease in network performance, which can result in video lag (buffering) or dropouts.
There have been advances in wireless over the past few years to accommodate the increased traffic. Traditionally, WiFi has operated on the 2.4GHz frequency band. Recently, newer devices have begun to capitalize on the faster speed of the 5GHz frequency band, as well (it supports throughput exceeding 1Gbps with the latest 802.11ac standard). For these devices, congestion is less of an issue, since most remain on 2.4GHz. But devices operating on the 5GHz frequency normally have a shorter range than 2.4 GHz. And this is an even bigger factor when you consider that walls and floors and other obstacles can reduce wireless range and performance.
So what’s a person to do?
As consumers, we have developed a huge appetite for technology. We enjoy using all our devices to their fullest potential – and then some. And when it comes to gaming, video and audio, technology has given us more access to entertainment content than we’d have ever thought possible even 10 years ago. Unfortunately, as consumers, we haven’t stayed as close to the curve in adapting our homes with the newest networking technologies.
Before jumping in, we need to understand how to best make use of these technologies to meet our needs. Understanding our demands, and knowing our options for creating an effective delivery system that meets or exceeds our current demands, is the best way to guarantee a satisfying user experience both now and in the future.