Tag Archives: internet access

Getting on the Internet

If you live in the city, it’s very easy to get “high-speed” internet connectivity (meaning always-on, 1 Mbps or faster) – choose from the available (usually several) methods based on cost, speed, and reliability.

In the country, however, it’s not so easy – so let’s review the options:

Old acoustic coupler1.) Dial-up using a modem: not a realistic option. First, it’s not “always on,” it’s only on when you dial up, so there are a lot of things you cannot do. Second, the speed you can achieve is dependent on how far away your local telephone switching station is; maximum modem speed is about 56 kilobits per second, and, practically, you might be lucky to get half that. It’s OK for getting and sending “conversational” emails, but it can take a long time to download a webpage, simple document, or large picture.

Cable Modem2.) Cable or DSL: probably your best bet IF you can get it. You have to be within a certain distance of a telephone or cable TV facility, and most rural residents don’t qualify. Cable and DSL usually provide the fastest speeds and best reliability if you can get it, though.

Fixed Wireless Antenna on home3.) Fixed Wireless (also known as WISP for “Wireless Internet Service Provider”): Next best option, because you can get good speed and reliability without wires. The problems here are that not all WISPs are created equal, and not all places are served by a WISP. What WISPs do is set up towers with radios on them, then install a radio on your house (known as “Customer Premises Equipment” or “CPE”) to “talk” to the radio on the tower. If you are in direct line-of-sight to a nearby  tower, and the tower is operated by a good WISP, this can work very well. If not, it’s not  a good option. There is a coalition of WISPS called WISPA – you can check their website for a WISP near you – see the links to the right.

USB AirCard4.) Cellular (or Mobile Wireless): OK, but can get expensive. Cellular companies sell “Air Cards” – typically USB devices that plug into a laptop computer to provide Internet access via the cellular network. They used to be very slow, but “3G” networks now routinely provide better than 1 Mbps, and new “4G” networks may provide many times that speed. While an Air Card is designed to be plugged into a laptop,  you can also plug them into special routers from NetGear, Kyocera, Cradlepoint, and others to provide a more “normal” Internet connection (one to which you can connect several computers). Some of the cellular companies are selling routers with the Air Card built-in as a way of getting into the home internet market – Clear (the company that provides WiMax connections through Sprint) is one of those companies with their new “Clear Modem.” Several cellular companies (Verizon being the one I’m familiar with) are selling the “MiFi” device that creates a wi-fi hotspot from an internal cellular data card. Unfortunately, the MiFi devices I have seen don’t have an Ethernet port, which limits their usefulness.

Satellite Dish5.) Satellite Internet: OK, but introduces a problem called “latency.” Satellite internet is available anywhere you have a clear view of the southern sky, so it has been the method of choice for rural households for some time. The problem is that the satellite is over 35,000 miles away, and a packet has to go all the way from your computer, 35,000 miles up to the satellite, 35,000 miles back down to the ground, to the server you are “talking to,” and then the response has to travel 35,000 miles back up to the satellite and 35,000 miles back down to you, and all of that takes about a second or more. While a second doesn’t make much difference if you’re just browsing a web page, it makes using Voice over IP applications like Skype or gaming services like Xbox Live impossible.

Once you figure out which option is best for you, the company will set you up and you’re on the Internet. Now the fun begins…

Distributing the Internet in your home

So your Internet provider has left you with some electronic devices, and maybe an antenna on the roof. In many cases it is connected to one of your home computers, so you can now get on the Internet. Now what?

Well, the first thing is to understand what you have. Typically, you have one of the following:

  1. A box inside the house with one Ethernet port that is connected directly to your computer, or
  2. A single Ethernet cable snaking in from outside the house and connected directly to your computer (actually, there is usually a little black box in the middle somewhere, plugged into the wall), or
  3. A box inside the house with several Ethernet ports and usually a wi-fi Access Point.

Most new Cable, DSL, Cellular, and Satellite installations will include a “combination” box (modem and router) which most closely resembles #3. This makes building out your network easier, in most cases, because it includes a router.

2Wire combination router

Most older Cable, DSL, and Satellite installations (and some new ones) just include a “modem” and resemble #1, while most Fixed Wireless installations include a radio (attached to the house) that most closely resembles #2. If your situation is like #1 or #2, you need to install a router to build your Local Area Network (LAN) and enable multiple machines to access the Internet simultaneously.

Netgear router

Inexpensive Netgear router

Routers are very inexpensive and pretty easy to configure. In general, there is no advantage to getting a more expensive router – good routers are available for about $35 from Amazon.com or Ebay (about $50 if you drive into town and go to the store; Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy all carry routers and Ethernet switches). The extras that drive up the price of routers are:

  1. Advanced wi-fi features – “N” wi-fi and dual-band (2.4 and 5.8 GHz) wi-fi are the main ones; sometimes useful if you have a very large house, but I have found that setting up a separate wi-fi access point provides better service. Wi-fi from your router just doesn’t have enough range to be very useful in a rural setting, in my opinion.
  2. Network server applications, like USB file sharing – nice, but I think it’s better to have a dedicated device for this kind of thing.
  3. Advanced security (firewalls, filters, etc.) – again, kind of nice, but a real pain in the butt to configure correctly and, honestly, the likelihood that you need this sort of security (or that it really provides more security for your network than you get from the $35 router) is very, very low.

I have tried routers from Linksys, D-Link, and Netgear. The last few I have bought have been Netgear routers (including the “3G” router I have in my car with the Verizon Air Card – more about that another time), because they are the most flexible of the “consumer-class” routers. There are certain things you can do with the Netgear routers that you can’t do with Linksys or D-Link routers. However, I should say that I have also had some reliability problems with Netgear routers; they cost $35 last time I checked on Amazon.com, and I’d suggest buying two.

Once you get your router and get it set up, you’ll have (typically) four Ethernet ports and a wi-fi access point, so you can now attach many more devices to your network and access the Internet from any of them. The obvious things to connect are more computers (desktops, laptops) and smartphones (I have an iPhone; it’s a pretty good phone, albeit crippled by AT&T’s service, but it’s a REALLY great wi-fi device), but just about everyone is going to have wi-fi enabled iPad-type devices soon, and there are a lot of other useful things you can put on the network once you have it up and running.