This is a difficult subject. Part of why this is so confusing is that it brings big corporation technology to your home. In big companies they have a room full of techno nerds just managing the network. Those guys are a whole different level of nerd! They use words like ‘subnet’ and ‘network address translation’ and ‘ip table’. Usually, dinner with one of these guys leaves your head spinning.
Another reason your home network can be confusing is that there are so many different ways it can be put together. They’re like snowflakes, no two are alike!
Note: Don’t read this article too quickly. Take your time. Re-read the parts that you don’t understand the first time. My goal is not to turn you into a networking techno nerd. Let me know in the comments if I need to make something more clear.
I’m going to try to break down your home network so that it’s easy to understand. I may use a few techno nerd terms along the way, but I will take the time to give you the definition of those words and phrases.
Lets start by talking about why you have and need a network in your home. For the most part, it gets your computer, smart phone, and/or tablet PC connected to the rest of the internet. It can also connect those devices to each other. For example, you can have a printer that doesn’t connect directly to you computer. It sits there plugged into the network where anyone on your network can use it. So that brings us to your first term:
Network Printer – a printer that connects to a network so that you can use it from any computer on the network. It can have a Network Cable connection, or it could connect to your Wireless Access Point.
There, that wasn’t so bad was it? I started with that one because it was easy. Let’s move on.
Here are the major components of your home network:
Network Cable – A piece of wire that connects network devices together. It looks like an over-sized telephone cable.
Modem – This device is usually given to you by your internet company (usually your phone or cable company). It usually has one network cable and then a cable that connects to your internet company. If you get internet from you cable company, it will have a cable connection just like the back of your TV (usually black wire with a very frustrating screw-on connection). If you get your internet from the phone company it will have a telephone connection on it. Think of the modem as a bridge between your home network and the rest of the internet. Think of the internet as Canada and your home network at the USA. The bridge takes you across the border.
Router – The router usually has several Network Cable connections on the back of it (remember these are the wires that look like over-sized telephone cords). Usually it will have a couple of little rubber flexible antennas on it. We’ll get to those in a minute. If the modem is the bridge at the US/Canadian border, then the router is Border Patrol. It asks the little information packets on the network where they are going and decides if they get to cross the bridge or not.
Wireless Access Point (WAP) – A wireless access point makes an invisible connection between your wired network and portable devices like a laptop computer or smart phone. Think of a long invisible network cable that doesn’t kink when it gets slammed in the door. A Wireless Access Point communicates over radio waves that we refer to as WiFi (that term is taken from the old HiFi home stereo systems). In most home networks the WAP is built into the Router.
There are more terms, but I think that these will be enough to get you going.
As I mentioned earlier, home networks are like snowflakes. No two are alike. Many Routers have the Wireless Access Points built in, but there are also many Modems that have Routers built in. To make it even more confusing some Modems have the Router AND the Wireless Access Point built in. Having it all built in to one device does simplify set-up and connection, but it has its drawbacks too.
We’ve now reached the ‘hands-on’ portion of our article on home networks. Think back to when your phone company or your cable company came and hooked up your internet. Where did they put that stuff? It is probably near your computer. In most cases there will be a lot of wires. You’re looking for small plastic boxes about the size of a sandwich. Look for brand names like Motorola, Linksys, Netgear, or Westell. Look for your internet company’s logo. If you have an Apple router, it might look like a small white flying saucer with the Apple icon on it. If you weren’t there when the tech came to do the install, ask the person who was. If you still can’t find it, call your internet provider. I’ll wait…
OK, hopefully by now you have located the networking equipment. There may be a rat’s nest of wires. It may be behind other stuff. It is probably covered with dust. You may want to get a flashlight, move a desk lamp, or better yet get one of those lights you wear on your head. If the dust is bad, grab the vacuum hose and carefully remove the dust from the equipment and the cables so you feel comfortable touching it.
Look for the wire coming from your internet company. If it’s the telephone company, look for the telephone cord. If you get internet from the cable company, look for the round black cable with the frustrating screw-on ends. Whatever type of cable it is, it should come out of the wall (or ceiling, or floor) and in to your modem. Make a note. Take a picture. Write down the brand name. It will be very helpful for you to know what this device is. It will shorten your phone call to tech support when you have internet problems.
So you’ve found your Modem. Great! Let’s study it for a minute. How many wires are connected to it? Does it have any little rubber antennas? If there are no antennas and it only has two or three wires, then it’s probably just a Modem…nothing fancy. Look closer. Does it have three or four connections on the back that look like over-sized telephone cord connections? If so, then you have yourself a modem with a built in Router. Does it have little rubber antennas? If so, you have an all-in-one Modem that has a Router and a Wireless Access Point built in.
No matter what kind of Modem you have let’s look at the wires. We talked about the phone cable, the cable TV cable, and the Network Cable. The other cable that is plugged into that Modem is the Power Cable. Most of the time, this is very thin and black. It has a round connection in the back of you Modem. On the other end it has what we techno nerds call a ‘Wall Wart.’ When you find it, you’ll understand why we call it that. It’s big, it’s ugly, it sticks out, and you wish it wasn’t there because it takes up space on your wall outlet or power strip.
This Power Cable is important when you have trouble with your internet. 90% of the time you can unplug this cable from the back of your modem, wait a few minutes, plug it back in, and your problem is solved! This is what we call a Power Cycle. I won’t get in to why this works, it just does. This is the first thing you try when there is trouble. This is the first thing any technician would try if you paid them to come to your home to fix your internet problem.
Let’s move down stream (think of your connections as the flow of water through the wires and devices from the wall to your computer). If you don’t have a Router built in to your Modem, the next device in the stream is your Router. There will be a Network Cable connected from your Modem to your Router. Many times this Network Cable is yellow or red. Your Router should have about five or six Network Cable connections on the back. Most Routers have the Wireless Access Point built in. That means your Router will either have the little rubber antennas or it will say the word ‘Wireless’ on it somewhere.
Take a look at the back of your Router. It should have the same type of power cord that we found on the Modem. Again, you can solve a lot of your networking and internet problems by unplugging this power cord, waiting a few minutes, and plugging it back in. Look at the Network Cable connections. You might need a magnifying glass, but each connection has a little label. Usually its embossed in the plastic. Some of them will have numbers, but one of them will be labelled ‘Internet’ or ‘Uplink.’ That’s the one that should have the Network Cable running to the Modem. The others will have Network Cables running to your computer or printer or other network device.
Look at those Network Cables. If you tug lightly on them they won’t come out. They have a little plastic tab on either the top or bottom that you squeeze in toward the connector while you unplug it. Go ahead, try it. Unplug one of them. Some of those tabs can be stubborn especially if they have a rubber protective boot covering it. Look it over. Turn it around and see the little metal contact points divided by little plastic tabs. It’s not that complicated. If you look at your Network Cable connector and then look at the connection where it goes on the back of the Router, you’ll see that you can’t plug it in wrong. Just slide it in. Do that now. You should hear and feel a little ‘click’ as the plastic tab locks it in place.
We’re going to stop here. There will be more on home networking later, but with what you’ve learned in this article you can fix most of the networking or internet problems that you experience at home. You also have the capability to install a new network device.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. If you’re worried that you won’t remember how to put something back, take a digital picture before you unplug anything.