Bootstrapping your home network
By Peter French, Synapsys Managing Director
Home WiFi networks aren’t corporate networks. I think we’ve all realised that, after 12 weeks of working from home during lockdown. Overnight, we expected our home networks to cope with a massively increased load thanks to things like video conferencing and file sharing for work and school, and streaming and gaming for entertainment, all at the same time. And our neighbours are probably doing the same. Is it any wonder our WiFi connections are more than a little choppy right now?
I remember running into a similar problem when I first joined Synapsys in 2012, doubling its headcount. The pair of us were working out of home offices at the time, and since I’ve been messing about with computers since my mom’s first 386 computer when I was six, using trial and error to figure stuff out, I set out to improve my home network. In getting it to do a few more things, like give me the ability to securely access our systems remotely, I learnt how best to optimise a home network for business use.
The good news is that there are a few things you can do relatively easily and cost-effectively, bumping up the performance of your home network and increasing its security.
1. Optimise your WiFi
WiFi is great. It’s convenient, saves us running cables around our homes, and makes it easy to add devices to our network. But it’s also not a one-size-fits-all technology and is probably the number one reason why your Internet connection is so choppy right now, even though your ISP has kindly increased your fibre bandwidth during lockdown.
This is the first place to start to get better Internet connectivity at home:
- Don’t simply install a repeater; rather, consider a two- or three-node mesh WiFi system. Or even better would be to wire in additional access points. This creates separate wireless access points across your property, rather than only retransmitting the router’s signal, which ultimately just stretches it thin and doesn’t improve performance.
- A quicker fix that doesn’t require you to buy additional equipment is to download a WiFi channel analyser app and choose a WiFi channel that is least congested and not shared by all your neighbours. This is especially useful if you live in an apartment block where multiple WiFi signals overlap. You can change the channel in your WiFi router’s dashboard. If you leave the channel selection to automatic, you may need to restart your WiFi router every so often for this to reset to the least busy channel.
- Don’t be tempted to set your WiFi router’s transmit power to maximum. Quality will degrade at the edges of your WiFi signal’s reach, you’ll get more dropped packets and you’ll end up hogging even more bandwidth.
- Take a look at how many devices you have connected to the router. You’ll probably be surprised when you start factoring in smart devices from TVs to security cameras and appliances. Apart from the bandwidth these consume, each contributes to the noise on your home network, causing packets to drop and your important video conference to stall. Here again, a meshed or wired system would be helpful.
- If you have a lot of people using your network for voice calls, you could investigate the quality of service (QOS) features on your current router and use these to prioritise important traffic such as voice.
2. Secure your home network
Cyber security attacks are on the increase at the moment. Criminals are cynically taking advantage of both the uncertainty around the current health crisis and also the fact that so many corporate networks are being accessed remotely as people work from home. Therefore, as well as being concerned about Internet speed, you should ensure that all devices have the latest updates and firmware installed, and that all endpoints, including mobile phones, laptops, desktops and servers, connected to your home network have cyber protection software installed. But anti-malware software, such as Acronis Cyber Protect, on all your devices is just the start; you need to take additional measures just off your endpoint devices on your Internet access point. In other words, on the WiFi router we met above.
Here, again, you have several options:
- Replace the basic router you received with your fibre installation with a premium router that gives you fine-grained control over what comes in and out of your network. Even your ISP doesn’t have access to this router.
- One step down from this, but still worth doing, is optimising your current router for security:
- Ensure the firmware is up to date on your ISP-supplied router. If it’s so old that it can’t be updated, contact your ISP and motivate for a replacement router on security grounds.
- Change your WiFi login password and the password you use to access the router’s dashboard from the default passwords. While you are there, you might as well update your WiFi network name to something a bit more user-friendly. (This last point is less about security and more about WiFi being easy and convenient to use.)
- In the advanced settings on the router, deactivate remote access and ensure the built-in firewall is switched on. This won’t affect what you have access to but does control incoming connections to your WiFi router.
- Turn off UPnP (Universal Plug and Play). This is a handy feature, but it’s designed to be used on networks where you know all devices are secured and safe. This is just not the case in the real world, so it’s really a bad idea to have it enabled.
Top tip: Don’t be scared to make these changes. Experimenting is the best way to optimise your network for your specific circumstances. But, take a screenshot of the original settings before making any changes, just in case you need to roll back!
These tips should hopefully improve your home WiFi performance, and keep your personal information safe, giving you more time for that important video conference, or the Netflix binge you’ve got planned when the call is done.
Next month I’ll look at additional ways you can use your WiFi router to protect yourself and your household from undesirable and dangerous content, and after that, take a look at the Internet of things (IOT) devices we are bringing into our homes, and the related security implications.