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Installing a 100Mbps Home Network

May 6, 2002 12:00 PM, Jim Boyce

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Many existing home networks work at a maximum of 10Mbps. This speed is adequate for most homes at present, given that their Internet connections (even broadband connections such as cable modem and DSL) operate much more slowly. However, if you're thinking of wiring a new network, you should consider nothing less than 100Mbps Ethernet. Pumping up your network can do wonders for large file copies, network games, and even mundane tasks such as printing. If you have a very fast Internet connection, boosting network speed can also improve video conferencing and streaming media. And a 100Mbps network gives you room to grow.

Installing a 100Mbps home network isn't a tough job. Even if you've never laid a cable run or crimped a cable end for a connector before—you can do it if you plan properly and use the right tools. You won't spend a mint on materials or tools, either. If you're lucky, you might even be able to borrow some of the tools from your IT department at work. Doing the job right and planning for the future, however, require some preparation.

Cabling Considerations

Before you buy an inch of cable or a piece of hardware for your new network, take the time to do some serious evaluation and planning. If you have an existing 10Mbps network that uses Category 5 cable, you don't need to rewire—Cat 5 cable supports 100Mbps speeds. You only need to upgrade your systems' network adapters and hub to support 100Mbps.

What about other networking options you might have heard about, such as those that use your home's electrical or phone wiring? These options typically don't exceed 10Mbps. Most current wireless technology is limited to 11Mbps, although a new technology increases that speed to 72Mbps. If these speeds are adequate for you, see the sidebar "4 Other Ways to Wire Your Home," for more information about wired and wireless networking alternatives.

However, if you want 100Mbps and you don't have a Cat 5 network in place, you need to wire one. Several companies, including Cisco Systems and D-Link Systems, have announced 1Gbps technology that works over Cat 5 cabling, so installing a Cat 5 network now will let you upgrade to a 1Gbps network later without the cost and installation difficulties posed by fiber. Current home broadband Internet connections aren't fast enough to derive any benefit from 100Mbps, let alone 1Gbps, and 1Gbps technology isn't very cost effective for home users. However, both of those limitations will change over time, giving 100Mbps Cat 5 copper users a good upgrade path to 1Gbps speeds.

Patch panel with a cable TV
Patch panel with a cable TV and an RJ-45 jack

Your first planning step is to decide where you want your network connections. Put connections in obvious places such as your home office or family room near your existing computers, but also consider connections in rooms where you currently don't have computers. For example, you might not have a computer in your living room now, but down the road, you might want to install a multimedia PC or Web-enabled appliance in your entertainment center and might regret not having a connection in place. Sketch your floor plan and note on your sketches where you want each connection to be. Add rough room dimensions to your sketch for cable-length planning. Remember to include additional length for running cable between floors.

The next step is to decide where you'll locate your hub or switch. You'll install cable the same way regardless of which you choose. I'll assume a hub for now but will discuss the pros and cons of a switch shortly. Each cable run starts at the hub and branches to a computer connection, so choosing a central location for the hub can cut down on the amount of cable you need. However, cable is relatively inexpensive, so don't use cable length as the deciding factor in hub placement. When you're deciding on a location for your hub, keep in mind that the hub will have a cable for each networked device. If you have several devices, your hub can quickly become a real rat's nest. If possible, locate the hub in a closet or in the basement where it will be out of sight. Also keep in mind that the hub needs AC power.

Phone cabling is another issue to consider when planning a network. If you're short on phone connections in your home, you can easily pull a phone cable at the same time you pull the network cable and have a phone connection by each network connection. Extra phone connections are a good idea if your area won't see broadband access for a while and you need to continue to use dial-up Internet access. Having a phone extension near your computer is handy (even if you do have a broadband cable or DSL connection) if you ever need to make phone calls for technical support or just like to chat while you're online. Also consider whether you want a cable TV connection near one or more computers, and run that cable at the same time. You might decide later to add a TV card to a computer, and you'll be glad that you have the cable in place.

RJ-45 jack

RJ-45 jack
RJ-45 jack

After you decide where the connections and hub should go, you can estimate how much cable the job will require. Cat 5 cable is limited to 100 meters (roughly 300 feet) per run (i.e., the distance from a hub to a computer). Unless you live in a mansion, no single run in your house will likely exceed 100 meters, but keep the limitation in mind when planning.

You should consider several factors when determining how each cable run will get from point to point. Avoid running cable near electrical wiring. If you must cross electrical wiring, make the network cable cross perpendicular to the wiring to minimize crosstalk and interference, which degrade network performance. Route Cat 5 cables several feet away from fluorescent lighting fixtures where possible for the same reason. Secure cables with wire hangers, wire ties, or wire staples. If you buy a rack to hold the hub and patch panel, use wire ties to bind cables to the rack and relieve strain on the connections to the hub. If using wire staples, be careful not to run the staples through the cable. You don't need to run Cat 5 cables through conduit, and network cables can run as a bundle without concern for crosstalk between them. Don't run Cat 5 cable through ventilation ducts; the cable insulating sheath gives off toxic fumes if it gets hot enough to burn.

Your home's construction type affects how and where you run cables. If you have a one-story house with a basement, you should have little trouble planning your cable runs. Locate the hub in the basement, run the cables along the floor joists, and drill up into walls to run cables to wall receptacles. It's easiest to run cables up into interior partition walls, which in most cases don't have a load-bearing wall under them in the basement. Running cables up into exterior walls can be a little more difficult because the walls rest on the foundation and the house walls aren't usually as thick as the foundation walls. Just make sure you measure accurately and take wall thickness into account before you start drilling, or you'll end up with a 1" hole in your floor the way I did when I rewired my home. If you're not confident of a hole location, drill a small pilot hole with a long, 1/8" drill bit before you make the final hole.

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