Take control of your home internet service
We believe that a strong, secure home network is the foundation for any smart home.
When did you get your home Internet service installed? When you moved in? How long ago was that? Have you changed it recently? Are you happy with the performance?
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With so much of our lives now dependent on our home Internet service, it’s easy to get frustrated when it slows down. We’re streaming more shows; online gaming, YouTube, and Zoom calls all compete for bandwidth; and smart home products like video doorbells and cameras are adding to the network congestion.
Here at AppMyHome, we believe that the foundation to any smart home is a strong, secure home network. And this starts with taking control over your own Internet.
The basics – what do you need for home internet service?
Whether you use cable, DSL or fiber Internet service at home, you need to to have two things to have Wi-Fi at home:
- Modem – this connects your home to the Internet through your provider
- Router – this connects your modem to your home network, both wired and Wi-Fi. All your devices in your house connect to the router to get an Internet address.
You can connect devices to a router with an Ethernet cable plugged into the back, or wirelessly using Wi-Fi. Cables are generally for things like your TV streaming box or your personal computer where you want the absolute fastest connection. For most everything else you’ll likely use Wi-Fi.
Renting from your provider
At the beginning, renting equipment from your Internet Service Provider doesn’t seem like a bad deal. It’s usually only $10-15 bucks a month extra to get the equipment with your service, and the provider usually comes in and installs it for you. You don’t have to decide what to buy or figure out how to hook it up.
But fast-forward five years and you’ve paid for that modem and router three or four times over, and not only that, you have outdated equipment. Your provider isn’t going to automatically upgrade you to better systems unless you call and complain, and even if you do, they are probably going to try to sell you the next tier of service first.
Modem/Router combo boxes
Most providers will install a combination modem/Wi-Fi router. This makes sense for their business, it is one box to install and service. The problem is, the modem and Wi-Fi technologies mature at different rates, so you are stuck in the past before you even install it.
For instance, in the cable internet world, the standard for data transfer technology is DOCSIS, or Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification. The latest specification is DOCSIS 3.1, which allows for the fastest Internet download (think streaming Netflix) and upload speeds (smart cameras, including Zoom).
DOCSIS 3.0 modems are still widely in use and are just fine for a lot of people, especially if your Internet provider limits your speed. DOCSIS 4.0 is still in development and we don’t expect to see modems that support this for some time. DOCSIS 3.0 was released in 2008 and 3.1 in 2016, so these cable modems tend to last quite a long time before the technology goes out of date.
If you’re upgrading your cable modem today, make sure to to buy a DOCSIS 3.1 model, since it should be current for many years.
Wi-Fi technology, however, tends to advance at a much faster rate. There have been plenty of innovations over the last five years that continue to make Wi-Fi routers work faster with more and more devices. Dual-band Wi-Fi keeps different devices on different bands (2.4 and 5 GHz) to decrease congestion, and Mesh Wi-Fi allows you to spread your Wi-Fi coverage around your home and garden.
Wi-Fi 6 – the current standard
You might remember at the beginning of Wi-Fi the standards were long numbers and letters – 802.11, 802.11a, b, etc. That started to get really confusing, so the Wi-Fi alliance renamed 802.11ac to “Wi-Fi 5″ and moved to a new naming convention, starting with Wi-Fi 6.
Wi-Fi 6 was designed to boost speeds and improve your network performance for the way we live today, with lots and lots more Wi-Fi devices connected to the network. It’s still relatively new, but if you have bought a new phone, tablet or laptop in the last couple of years chances are you might already have it in your device.
Wi-Fi 6E – the leading edge
In 2020, the FCC approved a new block of 6 GHz wireless spectrum for unlicensed use and there is now a new standard – Wi-Fi 6E. In the future, this will be a huge upgrade for Wi-Fi, since it will offer a third band of Wi-Fi with much less congestion. Most devices today run on 2.4 or 5 GHz and have for decades, so there can be lots of interference.
While Wi-Fi 6E sounds amazing, it’s still very early. There aren’t that many routers supporting it and very few high-end Android smartphones have the necessary chip. Notably, the new iPhone 13 still has Wi-Fi 6.
If your current Wi-Fi is working ok, there is no need to run out and buy a new router. But the next time you buy, definitely look for Wi-Fi 6.
Buy your own equipment and control your own upgrades
If you are ready to own your own equipment, the first step is to make sure your provider will allow it. Not every Internet service provider will be able to support customers using their own modem, for lots of different reasons, and depending where you live, you may not have much choice where you get your Internet.
Assuming your provider allows you to buy your own equipment, they should maintain a list on their website of approved modems and modem/router combinations. If you buy telephone service from your provider as well, you’ll want to make sure the modem you buy can support voice.
Buy (a bit) more than you need
If you have the standard plan from most Internet service providers, you are probably getting around 100 to 200 Mbps (megabits per second) download speeds, and 6 Mbps Upload. This is usually fine for most households depending on usage – good enough to stream (download) high-definition and 4K movies and shows, browse the web, do some online gaming and use smart home products.
Don’t overlook the upload speed, as you add more cameras, online gaming and video chats like Zoom, that 6 Mbps won’t be enough. So be sure when upgrading your service you look at both numbers.
Today typically the fastest Internet residential service is 1 Gbps (Gigabit) download and 40 Mbps upload. If you are lucky enough to have fiber in your neighborhood, you likely will see much faster upload speeds.
As more people in the house do these things at the same time – for instance right now when many people are working and/or attending school from home, you may start to see your performance start to degrade.
When you are buying the modem, look at the Mbps ratings and buy a bit more than you need. You don’t want something that is just enough or lower, just to save a few dollars. Most of the time the speed you are paying for is the lowest guaranteed by your provider, so you want to make sure your modem is capable of going faster.
If you’re not happy with your current performance, now is the time to consider whether you want to pay more every month and buy the new equipment to support that. You may be surprised to learn that you can upgrade your service to the next tier without spending that much more per month.
Buy your Wi-Fi Router Separately
If you want to buy just one box, you can choose one of the recommended options from your provider. However, we do recommend you buy them separately to give yourself more flexibility.
If you choose to go this direction, you will have plenty of options and shouldn’t be limited by your service. Most any Wi-Fi router available should work with your home Internet.
Wi-Fi Router Features to consider
As we mentioned above, Wi-Fi 6 is the current technology standard and has been available since September 2019. There are plenty of Wi-Fi 6 capable routers in the market now and prices are reasonable, with many options under $100. If you are upgrading now, make sure you get Wi-Fi 6.
Newer smartphones (iPhone 11 and later; Samsung Galaxy S10 and later) already perform at Wi-Fi 6 speeds. If you’ve bought a new laptop or tablet recently they probably have Wi-Fi 6 as well. We were surprised that our newest AppleTV also supports it. Those devices should get better performance on your new Wi-Fi 6 router, but don’t worry, all your older devices will work just fine too.
Extra Ports for Expandability
Depending what you use in your home network, you will likely need ports on your Wi-Fi router so you can directly connect devices for fast speeds (desktop computers, TVs, gaming consoles, etc) or access other things on your network (storage drives, smart home hubs, etc). Most routers today have at least 4 wired Ethernet ports and many also include USB ports. As smart home geeks, we find we can never have too many ports.
Another thing you’ll see in the Wi-Fi specifications are multiple streams – 4, 8 and 12 stream routers, for example. The more streams a router has, the more data it can send and receive from devices at the same time, with less congestion. So if you have multiple people and devices using the Wi-Fi at the same time, you will benefit from having more streams.
Dual (and Tri) Band
Most every modern Wi-Fi router will be dual-band to support 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz networks. This essentially means it is hosting two different Wi-Fi networks for different types of devices. In general, older, slower devices use the 2.4 GHz band and newer, faster devices use the 5 GHz band.
Tri-band routers add a third 5 GHz band so the faster devices don’t have to share. Similar to streams, this may speed some devices up if the bands are both competing for the same network, but it doesn’t seem like it would be as effective as having multiple streams. You likely don’t need Tri-band unless you are using mesh Wi-Fi, which we will cover next.
If you’ve been using Wi-Fi for a while, you might be familiar with Wi-Fi extenders. These are devices that plug into an electrical outlet to “expand” your Wi-Fi coverage to hard to reach places. Some of these work better than others, but in our experience, at our own home and when traveling, these don’t do much good and sometimes slow things down. Thankfully, a few years ago, several startups started building mesh networking systems, Wi-Fi routers that work together to spread coverage over larger areas.
If you have a sizable house (2000 of more sq ft), multiple floors, or if you want to use Wi-Fi in your garage or outside, you might benefit from a Mesh Wi-Fi router. Mesh systems have two or more satellites that work together to extend your Wi-Fi coverage all around your house. We’ve found mesh networks critical to keeping our outdoor cameras connected, for instance. Or if you’re like our friend Steve, you might want to do Zoom calls from your backyard.
If you are buying a mesh Wi-Fi system, buy one that is appropriate for your size house/yard. You may need two, three, four or more satellites to cover your house and yard. Many of the products even allow you to add additional satellites. You can place the satellites around your house close to where you want the Wi-Fi to reach. This is an instance where you may want a Tri-band router, since the satellites will use that third band to talk to each other, leaving the other bands open for your Netflix and video doorbells.
Mesh Wi-Fi routers have come down in price significantly and have packed in lots of new features. The Nest Wi-Fi even includes a Google Home smart speaker inside. You should also consider all the same factors we discussed above – Wi-Fi 6, extra ports, and multiple streams, depending how your household uses the Internet.
With more and more devices connected to your home network, security becomes even more important. Whichever router you choose, we recommend that you add some kind of firewall software to protect all the devices in your house.
Just like you add anti-virus software to your personal computers, network firewalls protect your smart home devices, phones, tablets, and other devices from outsiders. Some routers will include security built-in, others will offer software like Netgear Armor or Eero Secure as an additional subscription, and we think it’s definitely worth it if you are using any smart home devices.
Once you’ve decided what modem and router to buy, it’s just a matter of buying the equipment and setting it up. Budget a few hours to get everything up and running. Depending on your provider, you will likely need to call them to tell them about your new hardware and have them activate it from their end. Waiting on hold for a technician may be the longest part of your installation.
Conclusion: Rent vs Buy?
You may have read all of this and thought, “whew! I don’t want to think about all of that stuff. Maybe $10-15 bucks a month is not that bad a deal – my provider will worry about everything and set it up.” That’s totally reasonable and might be the best for your situation.
But hopefully now you have a better understanding of what to ask for – the latest modem and Wi-Fi technology, and the right system you need for your household use. And don’t forget security – it will likely be an additional subscription to your service, but definitely worth it.
If you do choose to continue renting, call your provider when the Internet slows down, and make sure they are upgrading your equipment on a regular basis. Your family will thank you, or at least stop complaining about the Wi-Fi speed.