Secure Digital Life #87
Recorded on November 6, 2018 at G-Unit Studios in Rhode Island!
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Topic: Wireless Routers and the Information They Serve
- Wireless routers come in all shapes and sizes with any number of features you could possibly want (or not want) in a device that really only has a single purpose—to share your internet connection with more than one computer/device. What are these features and what should you look for in a router when you are ready to purchase? All this and more on this week’s episode of Secure Digital Life
Wireless routers serve two purposes
- They take your existing internet connection (public IP address) and, through the process of NAT/PAT, they allow you to share that single public IP across a number of devices on your internal network.
- And the wireless router (as opposed to a regular router) allows you to extend the above to wireless devices over RF.
See, in order to get online, any device that connects to the internet needs an IP address. That unique address (think of your home address in relationship to the post office) defines you on the grid. When your computer sends or receives information (such as email or performs a Google search) the information needs to know where to go and where it came from so it can return results if necessary (such as the case of performing a Google search). All of this happens using IP addressing. Generally speaking, one machine gets one UNIQUE IP address. That is to say that the IP address has to be unique on the network it is on. For instance, your home network (yes, you’re running a home network if you are using a router at home) has multiple devices on it—cell phones, gaming consoles, computers, tablets, security systems, etc…. and each one of those devices has a unique (PRIVATE) IP address on that network. No two IP addresses on the same network can be the same. This is (usually) controlled by a special service running in the router called a DHCP which has the sole purpose of automatically assigning non-duplicate IP addresses to all devices connecting to it. It handles this (so you don’t have to) and it does a pretty good job. All of those devices on your network can share your PUBLIC IP address (the IP address assigned by your ISP) so you can connect to other networks (like the internet). Without this PUBLIC IP sharing, the devices on your network would be able to communicate with each other, but not the internet (e.g. no Fortnite!) So, not that we know what they do, how do they do it?
Wireless Routers and the Standards they Support
One of the first things to consider when looking at routers is the wireless standards they support. The IEEE, the responsible party for introducing/naming these standards, has identified them as: 802.11 followed by some letter (or combination of letters). For instance, there is 802.11, 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11.n, 802.11ac, 802.11ax, etc… These can be confusing for most of us, but, generally speaking, the further up in the alphabet you go, the newer the standard and (in many cases) the better the performance. For instance, 802.11g is better than 802.11b because it has higher theoretical maximum speed but 802.11b is NOT better than 802.11a because 802.11a has a much higher maximum speed. Given all these confusing standards and somewhat inconsistent names, the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit organization that certifies Wi-Fi products, has created an easier to understand (and therefore easier to adopt) naming schema. 802.11n is now referred to as Wi-Fi 4, 802.11ac is now referred to as Wi-Fi 5, 802.11ax is now referred to as Wi-Fi 6, etc… Thus, using this newer naming convention, the Wi-Fi standard gets better as the number increases—much like your cell phone (e.g. 3G, 4G, 5G, etc…). Just make sure that when you consider a router’s technology, you consider the standard that will work with your existing devices. That is to say that the wireless standards your router supports must be the same as the devices that will be connecting to the router support. If you have a computer that only supports Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) and your router does not support that standard, that machine is not getting on your network. The good news is that most modern routers are backwards compatible, meaning they will support current and legacy technologies. Always check the box to make sure, as it will be listed specifically somewhere on it or on the manufacturer’s website. NEVER ASSUME.
- Which one should you buy?
One of the most common questions I get is: “Which wireless router should I buy?” and, well, I always answer it the same way: “Whichever one will work for you.” Asking this question is the equivalent of asking the question: “Which car should I buy?” or “Which cell phone should I buy?” The answer really depends on what you’re looking for. If, in the case of the car, you are looking for something just to get you from point A to point B, without any frills or such, then perhaps whatever is on sale will work for you. But don’t be so quick to jump the gun here. You may want to look at some of the following considerations before purchasing.
- Wireless signals work on two bands:
§ 2.4 GHz
§ 5 GHz
- These bands are similar to your old cordless phones and work in a very similar way.
- Generally speaking, the 5 GHz band should be used when you are close to the router whereas the 2.4 GHz band should be used when you are further away from the router. The 5 GHz band has more channels and, as a result, is less susceptible to interference resultant from channel crowding but has a shorter range.
- If you have a bigger house with multiple floors or want to use Wi-Fi more than 100 feet away from the router then just look for a dual-band router. Barely more expensive than a single band router, these routers support both 2.4 and 5 GHz frequencies at the same time. Thus, you can setup two-band wireless networks in your house and reap the benefits of both.
- My suggestion is to look for routers that support the most standards. If most of your devices were purchased within the last 10 years, chances are, you are running a+b+g, n, or AC standards. Thus, look for a wireless router that can support all of those standards (Wi-Fi 4, Wi-Fi 5). If you have some extra money, look for a wireless router that will also support the new Wi-Fi 6 standard (also known as 802.11ax). This will insure you are future-proof for the next five or so years.
· USB Support
- Why would you need USB support on a router you ask? Well, that’s simple. If you have several computers/devices on a network—and why would you need to shop for a wireless router if you didn’t—you may want to print from all of those devices to a single printer or you may want to backup all of those devices to a single backup drive. This is where USB comes into play. Some modern wireless routers include the USB port so you can plug in a USB printer and/or a USB external hard drive to share between all of your devices. Historically, you would have had to have some intermediate knowledge of your computer’s operating system to do this, but this additional feature makes it much easier. So, if it’s included in the router’s hardware, why not take advantage of it?
· MIMO (or other technologies)
- MIMO is a newer technology that tries to increase the speed/reliability of your wireless connection using multiple antennae to send and receive at the same time, effectively increasing throughput.
- Beamforming is a technology that focuses the wireless single to reduce its footprint and increase its efficacy. Think of a pebble being dropped in a pond. The ripples emanate outward from the contact point of the pebble with the water. Because the ripples travel in a 360 degree pattern around the point of impact, they dissipate more quickly than if the ripples only traveled in a line. Beamforming does just that—focuses the 360 degree waves into skinnier “lines” of communication increasing signal efficiency and reliability thereby increasing the overall wireless experience.
Wireless Security (reminder from other shows)
- Change admin password
- Change admin username
- WPA2 Personal / Enterprise
- Disable SSID Broadcast
- Mac Address Binding