How to build a solid Smart Home Wifi network?

Eero Mesh Wifi - Photograph courtesy of eero

Eero Mesh Wifi - Photograph courtesy of eero

Introduction

If your home is populated with smart home products, a few mobile devices and to top it up you stream videos from Netflix, you probably already experienced stability and performance issues with your Network. At the rate IoT is developing, the challenge is not going to get easier any time soon.

This post will try to provide some insights on challenges and solutions found based on my own experience. I am certainly not an expert in the field of IT Networking but while struggling with some issues I discovered possibilities to improve my installation. I hope this post will help some of you that also find it difficult to simply get things working in their home.

Wherever you can, just use wired connections

The challenges

There are many challenges your network installation has to deal with. Understanding them will allow you to more easily spot the right solution.

Number of clients

As indicated in the introduction, number of connected devices is ever increasing. Not all of them require a large bandwidth but quite a few potentially do (IP cameras, media players, smart TVs, computers).

Mobile devices

Wifi enables devices to move around while remaining connected. For those with larger homes, you may experience inconsistency in your network performance depending on your location or while moving around.

Pollution

Not only you have more and more devices but so do your neighbours! In dense urban areas you can be literally surrounded with radio pollution from tens of networks and hundred devices if not more.

Building environment

When working in an open space office, you are less likely to suffer from the building as the radio connection between the router and clients is in direct line of sight. In most homes, the layout is more challenging and the radio will have to go through walls or ceilings which can be made of different materials. 

Technical options

Here is a list of possibilities I encountered. It might not be exhaustive but certainly covers most consumer scenarios. Later in the post  I will provide you with a more detailed view on the material I actually purchased and used in my own setup.

In terms of performance this is hands down the best option after Ethernet wiring (MoCA Adapters)

Wired connections

Let's start with the obvious. Wherever you can, just use wired connections. It will limit the traffic on your wireless network and offer much more stability and higher bandwidth. If your home is not wired, check if there are no available conduits for additional cabling pre-installed or simply call an installer to estimate the cost of wiring the house. Trust me, the more wire the better.

Just make sure your router or switches are Gigabit Ethernet to ensure good speeds.

Power line adapters

If you don't have wired connections in your house, before going into Wifi, an alternative is to use powerline adapters. The powerline technology allows your data to travel on the electrical network of your home. The signal can travel through all the different electric lines and make your data accessible wherever a power outlet is available. To use this technology you need a minimum of two adapters, one connected to your router which will then connect to the Internet and a second one where you need to add a wired connection. The adapters directly connect to wall sockets and have an Ethernet plug for data connection. Some adapters offer more features such as a built-in switch with multiple Ethernet ports or a Wifi Access Point (read chapter below for more information on Access Points).

Devolo dLAN 1200+ Wifi AC - Photograph courtesy of Devolo

The drawback of the powerline technology is that the quality of the connection between adapters is unpredictable and slightly unstable. Indeed, the quality of your electric cables or the noise on the network can largely influence the result. Nevertheless, this technology is still considered to be a better alternative to Wifi connections as it can provide higher bandwidth in areas of your home where Wifi simply cannot reach.

If you choose this option, since you will likely use them for many years my advice is to use the latest versions, either the 1200 or 2000 Mbps which ensures the best performance.

MoCA adapters (Multimedia over Coax Alliance)

This technology is a bit more exoctic and not very widespread altough very interesting. Indeed, If your home is not equiped with Ethernet cabling, it might still be wired with coax cables for your TV connections. If that's the case you could use similarly to Power Line adapters these cables to carry your data with a much more reliable and higher bandwidth connection. In terms of performance this is hands down the best option after Ethernet wiring. All you have to do is once again use adapters that will connect your router or devices to the coax wall socket.

 

Make sure you use the latest version of the technology for higher performance (MoCA 2.0 or newer) which ensures compatibility with shared Data and TV signal and the best available speeds.

the use of Wifi access points makes perfect sense especially in larger multiple story homes

Router upgrade

One simple but often successful option is to replace your Internet Service Provider (ISP) router with a better one. Indeed, the equipment provided by ISPs is not always state of the art and performance can be limited or not reliable. For 100 to 200 bucks new or even less on the second hand market you can get yourself a very good Wifi router which will for sure improve your Internet connection and upgrade the Wifi network. Higher-end models usually come with lots of administration features which could be handy if you plan to connect a large number of devices and to set up priorities in the traffic for instance. You can also tweak the radio channels to tackle potential pollution issues.

My take is to not necessarily go for the most exclusive models (not enough benefits for most users) but simply target a model with a good administration interface and options and at least AC Wifi to optimize connections with your latest mobile devices.

Eero Wifi Router - Photograph courtesy of Eero

Wifi repeaters

You got yourself a good router but somehow it's still not good enough to reach your upper floor or your outdoor lounge. Well, get yourself a smaller home ... or try a Wifi repeater! The repeater well positionned will amplify the router signal and extend the coverage to a wider area. This might do the trick for some but I think this is not the best solution as the signal repeated is obviously of lesser quality. Plus depending on your home, the best positioning might not be easy to find. Fortunately the latest models offer signal strength indicators which will help you during installation.

My advice, go with powerline or MoCA adapters instead.

Wifi access points

Wireless access points are not new in the world of IT networking but until very recently, you would rarely hear about it when considering residential market. In fact, it's used in pretty much every professional environments for years and for good reasons. Having seperate access points for specific areas of a building makes perfect sense as it ensures good coverage and mitigates the risks for Wifi blind spots. As home networking environments become more and more demanding, the use of Wifi access points makes perfect sense especially in larger multiple story homes.

Devolo dLAN POWERLINE module with WIFI ACCESS POINT - Photograpg courtesy of Devolo AG 

Devolo dLAN POWERLINE module with WIFI ACCESS POINT - Photograpg courtesy of Devolo AG 

One drawback of Wifi AP is that they require a wired connection between the router and the AP. If connection is possible, it's a no brainer. If you don't have the wired connection, you can actually use powerline adapters to feed the AP or simply use one with built-in access point instead. Most ranges of powerline adapters include Wifi models which offer a good alternative to wired access points. Another option is to use a MoCA adapter and a seperate Access Point which is even better than the powerline scenario.

Wifi roaming

Now while using multiple access points makes perfect sense, having to switch from one network to another is really annoying. In most cases you can simply set your network adapters in such a way that they all use the same network SSID and password, however the result is not always perfect depending on the layout of the installation and how old are your devices.

What you basically want is to roam accross your home without having to worry about changing networks and dropping connection. In that case I strongly suggest to use Routers and Access Points that offer some level of roaming assistance and configuration.

Wifi mesh solutions

Quite recently, manufacturers started introducing mesh solutions for home networking. It's basically a set of network repeaters but very smart. They usually offer simple setup while ensuring great home Wifi coverage with perfect roaming capabilities accross adapters. One of the first to offer a trully consumer friendly solution was Eero. Now the market is in such need that bigger fishes are coming into play. The latest to announce a home Wifi mesh solution is Google with the "Google Wifi" solution.

Personal use case

As a student, my networking requirements where not really impressive and my ISP router was more than enough to cover my needs. Over the years though things scaled up significantly and pushed me into exploring the options described above.

Here is an overview of my personal requirements as of today:

My family and I lives in a quiet suburban neighbourhood in an attached city house. This means that although we do detect our neighbour Wifi networks (around five of them) we are not suffering from extreme radio pollution from the outside. What is more challenging is that the house is built with concrete using thick blocks separating each floors (three in total). Walls are also made of solid bricks and plaster so it doesn't really get worse than that in terms of radio transmission.

Here is the current list of the equipment connected to my network:

  • Heating
    • 1 x Tado Bridge (6lowpan)
      • 1 x Tado Smart Thermostat
      • 5 x Tado valves
  • IT
    • 2 x phones
    • 2 x laptops
    • 1 x tablet
    • 1 x NAS storage server
    • 1 x Printer
  • Audio-video
    • 1 x Samsung Smart TV
    • 1 x Onkyo AV receiver
    • 1 x Media Player (Nvidia Shield TV)
    • 1 x Sonos Connect audio streamer
    • 1 x Logitech Harmony Hub (Elite remote)
  • Lighting
    • 2 x Philips Hue Bridge (ZLL)
      • 27 x ZLL lights (Philips Hue & Innr) 
      • 7 x Hue switches
      • 1 x Hue sensor

Is that a lot? Probably compare to most but I imagine a lot of readers own similar if not more crowded installations with multiple AV streaming setups and security cameras for instance.

what was even more interesting was the fact that Asus products offer some kind of easy Roaming Assistance

Solutions used

Phase One: Powerline Adapters

Devolo dLAN 1200 Adapter - Photograph PhilipPe REGNIER

The first step up I took from my ISP router was to invest in Powerline adapters from the Devolo dLAN range. Devolo is a German brand regularly awarded for their powerline solutions using the latest available technologies and a well rounded feature set. This allowed to feed good network access to my multimedia lounge setup for instance which was remote from the router but also from my home server (NAS).

 

Phase Two: Powerline Adapters with Wifi Access Points

As I moved into bigger homes, it became clear that the Wifi coverage from the single router was becoming a problem. Using the Devolo dLAN adapters we could simply add a few Wifi models and it did the trick. One of the cool benefits of using Devolo was the Wifi Move technology which sets up each Wifi Access Points with the same network parameters and lets you roam accross the house without having to worry about which network to connect to. 

Although a clear step up from my initial setup, this configuration eventually showed some limitations.

Phase Three: Router upgrade

Overtime I experienced some instability with the Internet connection and devices regularly disconnected. Working from home with audio conferencing and VPN connections became problematic. I decided to replace the router by a more robust model and set my choice on the Asus RT-AC68u, a middle range model offering pretty much all the functions I could possibly need in terms of administration.

This step certainly helped with a more robust and stable Internet connection and stronger Wifi signal on the ground floor where the router is installed. Most of the time we connect to the Internet or the network from downstairs in the living room and office area. Benefiting from the more powerful Wifi of the router on that level made sense while on the upper floor we kept the Powerline Access Points from Devolo.

The sci-fi design of Asus routers is way too geeky to my taste - Photograph Philippe Regnier

Another problem I experienced was more related to the performance of the network. Indeed, being who I am, I mostly watch and listen to HD quality media and that's quite demanding. My media player being connected to a powerline adapter I struggled listening to some high-res audio files and HD movies when reading files from the NAS server. The fix was to keep the server in my lounge next to my media player and connected to the same switch but that's not really "dandy compliant" if you see what I mean. 

the market is very much going in the direction of Wifi mesh solutions

Phase Four: Pulling Wires

Thanks to a neighbour I actually found out that my home was equipped with a bunch of unused conduits. I could use them to pull Ethernet cables or Coaxial cables for TVs. I immediately decided to take advantage of this option and pulled Ethernet cables to my living room and upper floor. First benefit,  I was able to resettle my Network Attached Storage (NAS) from the living room to the guest room on the upper floor and connect my media player directly to the network. No more fan noise and ugly geeky box in the living room!

At this point things started to work pretty well and I could possibly stick to this configuration for a while but something was still itching me. Indeed, the Devolo powerline had served me well for many years but I couldn't help but notice that their latest modules, the 1200 mbps models, although fast, where quite unstable and resulted in connection drops. Since I already changed the router I had to find out where this was coming from. Browsing the web, I found out that the latest Devolo modules suffered from heating issues. When overheating, the chip would simply stop the connection for a while to cool down and then reconnect. The module connected to my router being installed in my electrical cabinet which is pretty stuffed and warm, it could very well be that I was indeed affected with this heat issue.

Another discovery offered me a perfect solution to this problem.

Phase Five: Adding a wired Wifi Access Point with Roaming Assistance

Asus RP-AC66 Operation Modes

Asus RP-AC66 Operation Modes

While searching for solutions I found out that Asus router and Wifi Repeaters offer multiple configurations: router, bridge, repeater and access point. That's quite interesting but what was even more interesting was the fact that Asus products offer some kind of easy Roaming Assistance when multiple Access Points are used. This was perfect for me since my house is now fully wired. I could use Access Points on each floor and benefit from the Asus Roaming Assist functionality to replace the Devolo Wifi Move.

Buying a second hand router is pretty easy and safe so I actually bought an almost new main router, an Asus RT-AC87u for 100 euros. The replaced router was then relocated to the upper floor and configured as an Access Point. It also offered me a nice network switch to connect the printer, the NAS and the upper floor Hue bridge while keeping an empty port for guests if they wish to connect a laptop while visiting.

Next?

I am still testing this configuration and so far quite pleased with the performance. I might still go all the way and install another Access Point using the compact Asus RP-AC66 model for my middle floor. Currrently, in the middle floor I roam from the ground floor router to the upper floor Access Point which seems to offer a better connection in our bedroom. The Asus configuration webpage allows you to configure the roaming thresholds to optimize things but I feel that until I get that last AP I will always end up switching back and forth between the two Wifi sources. Three floors, three AP. It just seems to be the simple and definitive solution.

Conclusion

As you can see it's been quite a journey which might not be over as technology is always there to shake things up. I did learn quite a lot in the process and I hope that you will be able to relate to my experience and that it will help you building up your own solution suiting your specific needs. Although very much satisfied that I settled on wired Access Points, I feel that the market is very much going in the direction of Wifi mesh solutions. Although not necessarily better, it will probably answer most people's needs while offering pretty simple installation procedures. I can't help but notice that both Google Wifi and at a lower degree Eero products are much more design friendly with compact and white form factors compared to the classic network gears which are horribly geeky. This will definitely help adoption and the fact that a big name is endorsing this technology will for sure bring trust to consumers.

Google Wifi - Photograph courtesy of Google



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philippe regnier

Founder and main editor of The Dandy Domain.

Audio-video freak for more than 20 years, Philippe worked for more than 10 years with the most advanced professional lighting solution. Ended his corporate career at Philips Hue in the booming Smart Home playground. Crazy of Danish design and beautiful products in general. Believes technology should enhance our life not spoil it.

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