Sunday, January 5, 2014

Adventures in Home Networking

I have a home network that is just a little complicated. I made some changes to it this weekend and thought I should share the story with you.

Initially, we have Optimum Online Cable Internet Service. They'd promised a price for the bundle of telephone lines, Internet service and television service to my wife, but then the monthly bill greatly exceeded the promised price. She dragged in the state Public Utilities Commission and negotiated the price back to the original promise, but each month since them, paying the bill has been a multi-hour phone call where Cablevision asks for the billed amount and my wife reminds them of the agreed to amount with the PUC. We do still have cable TV and what not here, but she's getting tired of the monthly ritual and wants to get out of using Cablevision.

Replacing the TV portion of their service looks easy. We can just get DISH or DIRECT-TV satellite TV. We had it before but were unhappy that in heavy rain storms, the satellite signal seemed to get frequently interrupted. And the satellite TV companies, despite their commercials, don't seem to have any Internet service to seriously offer in our area. We'd made do with DSL service, but the bandwidth that we wanted just wasn't there.

We tried Verizon FIOS, but the monthly bill was higher than we wanted and the service was less reliable then we'd like. Seems that the technicians just haven't quite perfected running the fiber drop cables from the pole to the house. One random day a big cement truck traveling down our street took out our fiber and the one to the house next door too. Getting that fixed took many days longer than we'd have liked. We got fed up with the high bills and switched to Cablevision service. Good thing too, as the Verizon fiber drop cable came down again in Hurricane Sandy shortly thereafter. Cablevision's drop cable survived that storm, though the service was out for quite a few days while the area was without electricity.

So, the hard part for replacing Cablevision here seems to be Internet service. I really didn't want to go back to DSL or to FIOS. My wife keeps wishing that some other cable company would start to serve our area in competition with Cablevision, but it seems like that isn't going to happen any time soon. We tried Hughes satellite internet service. "Try it and cancel within the first 30 days with no obligation if you don't like it". We didn't like it. The packet loss rate was uncomfortably high (so that often when I'd download something, I'd end up having to repeat the download until I'd get a complete file. Now maybe with some tweaking of retry allowances, we might have been able to get the TCP/IP to work well enough over the lossy link, but the apparently unfixable part of the service was the high latency. My wife's son is a huge X-box fan and likes to play shooting games like World Of Warcraft against Internet-connected opponents. Alas, with the high latency of the satellite, you're dead before your opponent's gamebox ever even hears that you pulled the trigger. We certainly didn't need 30 days to decide the satellite service wasn't a good match to our needs. So we cancelled and returned their equipment to them.

My one remaining idea was that maybe we could make do with a Mifi hot spot from a cellular company. There are 2 gotchas that worry me. One is that not everything in our house is on Wifi. The HP 7410 printer, for example, can't do WPA2 encryption on its wireless port, just WEP and WEP encryption is hardly any more secure than no encryption at all. So we're using a wired ethernet port on the printer. I rigged the DHCP in the router so the printer always gets a fixed IP address. That made it easy to tell the various PC's around the house how to access the printer without our needing a Home DNS setup.

Last night we went to Best Buy shopping for a Mifi box that has an x-base-T output. We quickly learned that all the boxes had only Wifi output, no wired port at all. But the guy in the cell phone department suggested we talk to the store's Geek Squad. No joy there as the minimum wage-slave at the Geek Squad desk opined that what I wanted to do couldn't be done, but he suggested we talk to someone in their computer department who is more familiar with the network equipment in stock at Best Buy. So we traipsed over there and finally found someone whose first reaction wasn't "it can't be done". Best Buy has Wifi range extenders from Netgear (model WN2000RPTv2) that not only repeat the Wifi signal but that also bridge the Wifi to a set of 4 100-base-T jacks on the box. So we bought one and an AT&T Mifi box with a 2 year contract, but cancellable within 2 weeks without penalty. So far, so good. The setup of the Netgear box needed me to set a hex password for the _EXT Wifi network that it rebroadcasts. Since no one is going to be using that, I found a web site that can give me random hex digits. I got more than enough hex digits from the site and randomly picked some from the set for my new Wifi's WPA2 password. (My son lives in Silicon Valley, California. I suspect that if he was around he'd have volunteered a 16-sided die to select the needed random hexadecimal digits. There's more than one way to do it...). I pulled the ethernet cable from the cable modem and plugged that cable into a wired port on the Netgear box. Voila! A brdige from Wifi to my home network, wired and wireless both.

So, the main remaining gotcha for me to worry about is that the AT&T Mifi box has an allowance of 5GB/month. We have no idea how many GB/month our home Internet traffic amounts to. So we'll be watching the meter on the Mifi box to see how that goes. A remaining install chore is we want to try to move the home phone lines over to Magic Jack Plus on the home Internet setup. That's the last piece to get the Cablevision cable modem box out of the picture entirely. Then we can see what Cablevision's bill for just television service really looks like and can decide if we want to switch back to satellite TV and read a good book on rainy nights.

We did consider Sprint as an alternative provider of cellular Internet service. They seem to be the one company that has an unlimited cellular data plan available. Alas, Sprint's coverage map shows only 3G service in our area. So, while I was willing to step down to 4G LTE, I wasn't prepared to step as far down as 3G.

A thousand words is worth a picture, and I've got 2 pictures. This first picture sketches out our home Internet setup before today's changes:

Home network yesterday with cable modem

Less than obvious features of the home network: The fireplace wall is thick enough that it attenuated the Wifi signal from the original router in the bedroom to my wife's son's apartment behind that brick wall. A Wifi range extender in the dining room probably would have gotten a strong enough signal to his apartment, but we had an older router on hand, so he ran a cable from the main router to his apartment and set up the older router in the apartment so he has wired and wireless service plentifully available there.

This 2nd picture is just like the first one, except the cable modem is replaced by the Mifi box + the Netgear range extender acting as a bridge between the wired and wireless worlds in the house.

Home network today with Mifi and bridge replacing cable modem

I've already cautioned her son that if and when we go traveling, we'll likely want to take the Mifi box along which will temporarily leave the home network off the Internet. It's a hardknock life. But I think his cell phone can do it's own hotspot trick so he'll get by.

Preliminary findings: With only a fraction of a day of use, we've already burned through a 1/3 of the 5GB allowance. I'm not sure why, but clearly we have to figure that out. Http:// had shown pings to Brooklyn taking 14ms with a 2ms jitter on Optimum Online. Through the Mifi arrangement, that same test is now 44ms with a 9ms jitter. Pingtest's site cautions that with that much jitter, we may not be happy with VOIP and Internet game performance. Uh oh.

Any questions? Suggestions? Is your home network "interesting"?