February 2003 Bulletin

To wire or not to wire

Setting up a home computer network

By Jay D. Mabrey, MD

Let’s say you’ve just logged on to Orthopaedic Knowledge Online (http://www5.aaos.org/oko/login.cfm) to view the latest surgical video. And your spouse and children also want to check e-mail. Without a home computer network, you might be in for a frustrating evening.

By 2004, 43 percent of all households will have multiple personal computers (PCs) with over 14 million subscribers accessing the Internet from home via broadband connections— digital subscriber lines (DSL) or cable modems. Coupled with the latest in home network technology, your entire family can be online at the same time.

A network, also known as a LAN (local area network), consists of two or more computers and printers connected together to share Internet access, hard drives and information according to a set protocol. The most popular protocol for networks is Ethernet which transmits the data at between 10 and 100 Mbps. Each computer is connected to the network by a network interface card (NIC), also known as a network adapter. Sharing the DSL or cable modem connection with other computers on the home network requires a router—a switch that provides a connection point for the other computers. Connections are made through some type of wiring or through short-range radio transmission.

LAN set-up

Setting up a LAN at home is reasonably simple—and less costly than you might expect. The real question comes down to a choosing between a wired versus a wireless network. Category 5 (Cat5) Ethernet cable is the most common of the three wired alternatives because of its universally accepted standards. The other two phone-line and power-line networks use similar protocols, but are not as widely available and might experience electrical interference.

The most popular wireless LAN technology is known as 802.11b, or more commonly as WiFi (wireless fidelity). WiFi allows data transmission at rates up to 10 Mbps over a range up to 300 feet, although walls and floors decrease that range significantly. In a wireless home network, the router connected to the broadband modem serves as the main transmitter or "access point" for the other computers.

Decisions: cost and convenience

The decision to go with WiFi or Cat5 cable can be made in terms of both cost and convenience. In our hypothetical home network, assume that the cable or DSL modem is already up and running and that there are two desktop computers and one laptop to be connected.

Assuming that all three computers have built-in Ethernet connections, the only hardware needed for the Cat5 approach is a router and cable. One of the desktops is connected to the cable modem and the router so only two lengths of cable are required to connect the remaining computers. Typical cost for a wired router is $80 and 50 feet of Cat5 cable with RJ-45 male jacks on each end is only $24. Total cost: $128. Adding network cards to older desktops costs $20 apiece and a NIC for the laptop is $40. Maximum cost: $208.

Installing the Cat5 cables can be a challenge if the computers are widely separated, especially if they are on different floors. Newer homes are being built with Cat5 pre-installed, but this article assumes that you aren’t that lucky.

In the wireless scenario, it is less likely that all of your computers will have WiFi pre-installed. Assuming that you install WiFi cards in the two remote computers, expect to spend about $80 for the desktop NIC and $70 for the laptop. The wireless router will also cost more—about $115. Total cost is $265, plus another $20 if you have to install a standard NIC in the PC attached to the router.

WiFi in the home is subject to interference at times—and you might encounter dead spots in reception. On the other hand, with WiFi you can move about the house with the laptop and still have access to the Internet. A word of caution: although the WiFi standard incorporates security protocol, ensure that those measures are enabled because hackers can still get into your network.

Aside from running the cables, a hardwired network is the most secure and stable solution. Since the Ethernet protocol is used in both wireless and wired networks, it is possible to have the two operating within one network. Finally, if it’s your first time setting up a home network, stick with the same manufacturer for all of your components—it reduces the frustration factor.


Exploring Home Networking, Nov. 2000, Linksys, Irvine, Calif.


Jay D. Mabrey, MD, is an associate professor of orthopaedics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and chair, AAOS Electronic Media Education Committee. He can be reached at (210) 567-6297 or at mabrey@uthscsa.edu.

Computer Link welcomes suggestions about future topics for the column and questions about the use of computers in orthopaedic practice. Send your suggestions to the Bulletin at AAOS, 6300 N. River Rd., Rosemont, Ill. 60018.

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