Networking the Home: Wired vs Wireless

The home network, if you could even really call it that, used to be very simple. From the dawn of the Internet until the early 2000s, it was a rare home that had more than one computer or another networked device. Wireless networks were in their infancy, and the dominant connections to the outside world were good old-fashioned dial-up or in some lucky cases, ISDN (Integrated Services for Digital Network) which provided a mighty 128 Kbps at the high end.

Today, the situation is very different. With the explosive growth in Internet-connected devices from computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, games consoles and seemingly everything else in between, the home network is now more complex and demanding than many office networks were in previous years. Home media centres and other devices also introduce additional complexity, as do network-connected video surveillance and home security systems, thermostats and many others.

So, given that the increase in not only the number of devices but their requirements of the network, not to mention the expectations of their users shows no signs of slowing down, how can you make sure your home network stays up to par without unnecessary expense or operational complexity?

The first option, which has some very passionate advocates, is to install Cat5E/Cat6 twisted-pair cabling throughout the home, connecting devices which have fixed physical positions but are prodigious consumers of bandwidth to the network via their wired Ethernet interfaces. Examples of these are HD TVs, set-top games consoles, and desktop computers.

Although the stability and speeds of a wired connection are attractive, this approach requires a significant investment in time and money to physically install cabling throughout the home. And what if you then want to re-arrange the furniture in the room, or convert the whole room for a different purpose entirely? You can be left with ugly trailing cables around the edges of the room, the sight of which many have banished from their memories since the all-encompassing penetration of WiFi has relegated network cabling to places far out of sight for most people.

Another problem with this option today is a huge number of devices such as smartphones and tablets simply do not have a physical Ethernet port, and so WiFi coverage would still be needed throughout the house to ensure these devices stay connected. Which brings us to the second option.

The second option, as you have no doubt already guessed, is using WiFi to provide whole-home coverage, ignoring wired connectivity except where easily accessible right next to the wireless router. Although this option undoubtedly has benefits over the wired option in terms of solution cost, setup time, compatibility with modern devices and convenience, it can have significant issues providing satisfactory coverage throughout a large or thickly-built home, especially to spaces such as a basement or room on the far-side of the house from the wireless router.

However, new mesh WiFi systems aim to solve this problem easily by having a central wireless router connected to the wired internet connection entering the home, and then also connecting to a number of wireless network range extenders positioned throughout the home. In this way, wireless coverage can be easily extended to the far reaches of the home and has a much better chance of providing satisfactory performance than a traditional wireless router-only setup.

Another issue is the fact that the radio spectrum used by WiFi is a shared medium, and the more devices connected and transmitting data at any one time, the more chance that another device will have to wait to transmit, impacting its latency and overall data throughput. In theory wired networks have a substantial advantage over their wireless cousins in this area; however, with modern home WiFi systems and the speeds at which they are capable of operating, this is typically not an issue for home networks, which still tend to be bottlenecked at the internet connection itself.

One other thing to consider is not just the devices you have in the home today, or even those you intend to purchase yourself in the future for leisure; it’s very likely in the near future that humidifiers, water meters, microwaves and other household appliances that have traditionally been unconnected will start incorporating WiFi connectivity even in their entry-level models, and use the capability for registration, status monitoring, warranty and other functions.

It seems very unlikely that a home today would eschew WiFi totally in favour of wired connectivity, but there is certainly a solid argument to the opposite happening. With a strong and wide-coverage WiFi network, what is the point of the extra time and expense in installing data cabling throughout the home that then has to be monitored and maintained, to support a smaller and smaller subset of devices that can truly benefit from its advantages?

Outside of the dedicated niche of network enthusiasts who will install said cabling regardless, with modern mesh WiFi systems the need to consider this as anything approaching a necessity has long passed for the vast majority of home network users. An all-wireless network offers considerable advantages today in compatibility and freedom of movement, as well as being easily extended to indoor and outdoor spaces by the use of range-extenders.

Looking ahead, do upcoming technologies look to change this balance significantly? At the moment, the answer is no. The 802.11ad WiFi standard promises to provide multi-gigabit WiFi connectivity at very short ranges and without the capability to penetrate walls or other obstacles, whilst wired connectivity suitable for the home network is static. As home WiFi systems continue to improve in price, performance and range, the gap is only set to widen.

Ultimately, it’s every homeowner’s choice which type of network they wish to install for their own unique needs; however, it really is hard to find a convincing argument today for installing data cabling throughout the home when a modern home WiFi system could be installed and set up in a matter of minutes.

If the home is exceptionally large or built from a solid block of lead, then perhaps there is cause to investigate wired; if not, wireless all the way.