With wireless networking, long lengths of cable like this by Philex are replaced by a wireless router

The noughties was the decade that the internet really arrived. It moved from being a techie’s plaything to becoming part of the backbone of modern family life. We now use it to keep in touch with friends, to watch TV and movies, to shop, and to run our finances. But there remain a lot of questions about how all this data is best handled and what the most effective way of distributing it around the house is.

The critical question is: wired or wireless?

Self builders in particular have, over the past decade, spent a great deal of money laying data cabling systems around their homes, only to find that the world has migrated to wireless systems, which merely require a broadband router – usually provided free by the internet service provider – plugged into the phone line. Whereas once we all used desktop computers (which came with all manner of wires and cables), we now seem to be using laptops and smart phones where mobility is key. Has wireless moved on to the extent that wired systems are now redundant?

Let’s weigh up the technology’s pros and cons.

Wireless Pros:

  • It’s simple to install
  • You don’t have to plug into a socket
  • It’s almost as quick as a hard-wired connection (strictly speaking this isn’t true, as wired connections are capable of much greater data transmission speeds; but the limiting factor is usually the bandwidth coming into the house, so in reality most people won’t notice much difference)
  • It’s more convenient with mobile devices like laptops and iPhones
  • There are far fewer cables
  • It works up to 100m from the base station
  • It’s easily and cheaply upgradeable

Wireless Cons:

  • There can be blind spots — it often won’t work everywhere in the house: aluminium sheeting in particular (sometimes used with plasterboard or underfloor heating) blocks wireless reception
  • Other devices can cause interference
  • This makes it problematic when planning ahead — how do you know whether it will work or not?
  • Many smart home applications are not wireless — i.e. entertainment systems, alarm systems, some home automation

Extending Wireless Networks

There are products that enable you to set up booster outlets, which take the signal from the main router and relay it to parts of the home (or the garden office) where reception is difficult. Apple’s Airport Express is designed to do just this, and it also enables music to be distributed wirelessly as well. The advantage of these products is that they are portable, so you can move them around until you get the signal strength you require.

There is nothing stopping you playing mix and match, so that some parts of your home network are wired whilst other parts are wireless. In the future, it may be that self builders will stop ‘flood-wiring’ with data cabling (i.e. several outlets in each room) and instead run two or three ethernet cables from the hub to strategic points around the house, and then rely on a wireless connection from booster stations.

The Decision

So, if you are about to commission a new home, is it worthwhile opting for a structured cabling system – based on running Cat 5 ethernet cables in a star configuration – to every room in the house? Not necessarily. Mobile computing and wireless communication is taking over and few homes will have more than one desktop computer in future. However, it is still worth running a limited cable network to ensure reliable access. Remember there are other features of the smart home which require cabling — although they might not be the standard data type.

Plug-in networks

There is a new technology that threatens to make data cabling redundant, because you can now transmit data through your home’s electrical wiring system. HomePlug devices, such as Billion’s BiPAC (retailing at around £80), enable you to fit a pair of dedicated adapters into your electrical sockets and then to feed ethernet cabling into these adapters. It’s an inherently flexible system because every room (bathrooms excepted) has electrical sockets — so you can have a cabled internet connection anywhere you want. It’s a particularly good solution for outbuildings and garden offices, where a wireless connection might struggle.

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