Connecting to the internet

So you have signed up with your telephone company to provide you with access to the internet from your home. Your supplier will provide you with two options relating to the installation of the equipment, that will give you access. The equipment is called a Router – This is an example of a IT term with more than one meaning, some people use one when wood working, but for us its a device to connect you to the internet.

Irrespective of who installs the equipment, your provider will set a date for the work to be completed at the phone exchange, to allow connection.

If your supplier installs the equipment, there may be a small charge, installation shouldn’t take too long and once your supplier’s engineer is finished you are usually good to go.

If you decide to do the installation yourself, the equipment will be posted to you. The box will contain the router, a power cord, a cable to connect to the phone socket (which provides the Broadband signal) and possibly an Ethernet cable (There are two ways to connect to a router, one is by Wi-Fi otherwise known as wireless and the other is to use an Ethernet cable to actually plug into a device). There will also be some instructions in the box to help you get started

Before we get into the installation of your router, it’s wise to pause and describe what it actually does.

A home broadband Wi-Fi router is a device which combines a modem for accessing the internet, with networking for sharing the connection and communicating between devices within your home.

Back in the days of dial-up internet most home users would have a modem connected to one computer, which had to be manually connected and provided internet access to that device only. Now, a broadband router provides a hassle-free method of getting online anywhere in the home without requiring you to power up a computer and manually dial the internet service provider (ISP).

Almost all broadband deals include a router (or hub, as some ISPs call it) as part of the deal, very often for free, so there’s no need to purchase anything before signing up for a new internet package.

What does a router do?

A home broadband router has two core functions:

Internet access

Routers often have a modem which lets you connect to your broadband provider. Many newer routers support ADSL, fibre optic and Virgin Media broadband (so they are compatible with the vast majority of providers), but others might not have the right hardware for each type of broadband. If you’re buying your own router you’ll need to check it supports your broadband. If your internet service provider supplies the router then it will be the correct model for your broadband.

Home networking

Today’s routers also offer a wealth of home networking features. On the most basic level you can easily share internet access via wired or wireless connectivity, but it also allows you to – among many other things – share files between systems, stream media around the home and implement security measures to protect your network.

How does a Wi-Fi router work?

To access the internet, broadband routers have an internal modem which connects to the phone or cable line, connected by an ‘ADSL’ or ‘WAN’ port on the rear of the router.

Your router also hosts a local network, which you can access with either Local Area Network (LAN) cables, or Wi-Fi. Your router will also have a firewall for security. By default, anything connected to either the LAN or Wi-Fi will gain access to the internet. 

While the modem and the network hardware are working together in the router to provide all this functionality to connected devices, the internal network will continue to function without internet access.

(The modem and router can also be separate devices. This is less common in the UK, but not an unfamiliar setup for fibre optic broadband. It is also possible to have a separate DSL modem and router though an all-in-one broadband router is standard, and the best solution for most people.)

Mobile broadband routers are also available. Usually if we say ‘3G router’ or ‘4G router’ or ‘5G router’ it’s used to refer to a Wi-Fi dongle (also sometimes called a MiFi) which provides mobile internet access and shares the connection over wireless. However, there are mobile broadband routers which resemble home broadband hardware, with a network switch for wired connections and wireless support. But rather than connecting to a phone line they have either a SIM card slot or a USB port for mobile broadband dongles. These remain relatively uncommon and expensive but may become popular if mobile catches on as an alternative for home broadband.

The instructions supplied with a router are usually very good and often are pictorial. This is an example of the instructions supplied by BT. Note that details on the routers password, username and IP address are usually on a sticker on the device (or may be in the box). Whatever you do, don’t lose them, maybe take a photo of them just in case!

A couple of points as to where to site the router:

It should be very near the house telephone point (the first point the phone line enters the house), routers tend to not like extension cables.

If possible, and this is guided by the location of the phone socket, it should be sited centrally in the house so as to give a good signal.

Keep other electrical equipment away from it, where possible, as this can interfere with the Wi-Fi signal

Once you have the router up and running you need to give a little thought to security.

The importance of router security

A Wi-Fi router is not just your gateway to the internet, it’s also gatekeeper. It helps to protect you from attacks from outside and keep your information private. If your router is not secured then any device connected to the router can potentially be compromised, and any data you send could be exposed. For this reason, there are some basic steps everyone should take to bolster router security.

Change the admin password

Your router’s settings are protected with an admin password, but often this is a very insecure default password that’s the same for every model from that manufacturer. Change this immediately so only you have access.

Password protect your Wi-Fi

Your Wi-Fi network should always have a password to ensure that only authorised users can connect. It should also be using either the ‘WPA2’ or ’WPA3’ security standard.

Because router models differ slightly you should consult your telephone supplier’s broadband helpline as to how to do this.

Although modern routers are very good and reliable, on occasion you may wish to purchase your own router to meet a particular need or requirement.

The free routers supplied by the big ISPs – BT, Virgin Media, Sky and TalkTalk – are generally a lot better these days; time was when your provider-supplied hardware was little more than a cheapo white labelled router with a logo slapped on the side.

That said, what you’re offered by your ISP might still not be what you need for your home; you might want something that’s got more Ethernet ports or you might want a router which has the capability to fall back to a 4G connection should your fixed-line provider experience an outage – Or, there are now so many devices in your home all using WiFi, you’re in the market for something to improve coverage in rooms as well as getting a new router.

For whatever reason, it may be time you consider buying a new router – This guide will help you choose the best router for your home.

Should I get a new router or a WiFi booster?

If your Internet access is fine and dandy as long as you’re near to the router, but terrible everywhere else, you might find it’s more economical to buy some WiFi boosters.

As well as being cheaper than shelling out for a completely new router in some cases, it might be a more economical solution too.

If you live in an older house with thick stone walls, or you have rooms in the basement or attic your brand-new router, while otherwise powerful, can’t reach every corner of your home. Here’s where WiFi boosters come in handy.

Some merely bounce the signal around your home – these are called WiFi repeaters or range extenders and comprise two separate routers in them – one to receive the signal and the other to send it on.

Others, like Powerline adaptors, use your home wiring as an ad hoc network; you simply plug in the first to a plug socket near your router and then plug in your router via ethernet cable. The second plugs into a power outlet near the device you want to power with a better connection.

That second plug will have one or more Ethernet ports you can use to connect your desktop PC, smart TV or console in another room. Some will also feature WiFi radios, improving wireless coverage. Alternatively, you could connect this to a second router to provide

even stronger coverage.

ADSL, VDSL and Cable Routers: Compatibility

Not all routers are compatible with all types of Internet services, so it’s important you check the router you want to buy will work.

If you’re getting your Internet from a provider using BT’s Openreach network (i.e. Sky, TalkTalk, Plusnet, EE), you’ll need a router that’ll work with ADSL and, if you’re getting a Fibre to the Cabinet-based service, VDSL.

If you’re after a replacement for your old Virgin Media router, you’ll need something that will work with DOCSIS technology.

The manufacturer should include a list of the ISPs it works with or at least reveal whether it works with ADSL/ADSL2/ADSL2+ (standard broadband) VDSL2 Fibre (‘fibre’ broadband) or DOCSIS (cable broadband).

How to set up a router

Once you have bought your new router, before you set it up, you will need to contact your broadband supplier’s helpline as very likely they will need to supply some trechnical information so that your new router can connect to their network. Please note that they, generally, are only trained on the phone companies own equipment and might not be able to answer specific questions on the model you have bought (though they might).

If they can’t help you will have to consult the website of the model you have bought and\or their helpline.

When you take your new router out of the box, you probably don’t want to be messing around with it to make it work with your broadband service and devices.

Choosing a router with an easy set-up is vital to get you up and running out of the box. How you set your router up with your existing network varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and ISP to ISP.

In most cases, you’ll just need to connect your router up using an ethernet cable to your computer (and of course a connection to your phone line or cable socket, depending on the type of broadband you’re using).

You can then access the router’s settings menu (you will need to enter your router’s IP address and username and password in a computer browser to access the control panel These details are usually somewhere on the router’s case) where you can enter your ISP username and password. Things like DNS settings and any other details your ISP requires must be obtained from your ISPs helpdesk.

Once your router is working with your internet, it’s time to set up the connection to work wirelessly with your devices.

Most routers offer WPS, a quick connection technology, for

connecting computers, networked printers, game consoles and other devices you might want to hook up. This means you just need to tap the WPS button on the router and the same button (or setting from the device’s menu) and hey presto, your WiFi will work with your external devices.

It’s a much better option than having to connect with your network password and also means if you change the password (see next section), the devices will still be connected.

However, if your router or devices don’t support WPS, you can connect by searching for the network you want to join and entering the password when prompted.

Easy-to-change router settings

Whichever router you choose to replace your ISP-issued one with, you’ll want to make sure it’s easy to change the settings, such as the network’s name to make it easier to identify, the password and privacy settings. If you do decide to change one or more settings, it’s best to do it one at a time and then test everything’s ok. This way you only have one step to undo if something goes wrong.

Most router settings can be accessed by typing the router’s IP address into your browser window, followed by the user-name and password as detailed in the documentation. The interface and available settings will vary depending on the router manufacturer, but in most cases, it will be split into sections so it’s easy to find where you need to change the settings you require.

Some of the settings you should be able to change include the SSID (name) of your network, the password, the privacy options and security type. Some allow you to apply parental controls and change the wireless channel if it supports multiple options.

Wireless routers: Multiple bands

Routers use frequency bands to beam a WiFi connection to devices. There are three types of router – single, dual and tri-band – that support either one band, two or three at the same time.

Single band routers operate on the 2.4GHz frequency, which is great at penetrating thick walls and has a long range. Routers with only one band are also cheaper than their dual or tri-band counterparts. However, the technology is outdated now, and speeds are slower

than those supporting more bands. There’s also likely to be more interference from other devices because it’s the most widely used internet band.

Dual band routers add 5GHz frequency into the mix, meaning you can choose to operate your network with the 2.4GHz or faster 5GHz band. 

5GHz doesn’t travel as far, nor is it as effective at penetrating solid walls like the 2.4GHz band, but it has twice the bandwidth and because not all external devices support it, there’s less likely to be as much interference, making it a faster option.

The newest type of router, tri-band, adds in a third frequency – an additional 5GHz band. This means there’s less interference than dual band routers and the signal works better if multiple people are using the same network at the same time, because it’s adding an additional connection option.

However, tri-band routers are much more expensive than single or dual-band routers, so be prepared to stump up the cash if you want a top-of-the-range router.

Wireless routers: Range

The range of a broadband router – i.e., how far from where your router is placed, you’ll be able to get a reliable connection – is closely linked to the band it uses to beam your connection to devices around your home.

There are also other factors, such as the makeup of the property you’re using it in. If you live in a modern building with thin plasterboard walls, it’s likely your connection will reach much further than an old, brick construction dwelling. Interference with other devices and how many computers, phones, tablets games consoles etc., are using the same router will also have an impact.

However, the 2.4GHz frequency band does have the best reach, generally, with a range of 150 feet (46m) indoors and 300 feet (92m) outdoors quoted by most router manufacturers, as long as there’s nothing like trees or sheds in the way.

A 5GHz connection generally has a range of about a third of this (50 feet (15m) inside or 100 feet (30m) outside), although it’s impossible to say whether these would be the range you can expect because it all

depends on your particular home’s construction, how many devices are connected and any other equipment that may interfere with your connection.

Number of Ethernet and USB ports

If you connect a large number of devices to the internet using a ethernet cable rather than WiFi, such as TVs, speaker systems, games consoles or more, you’ll need to make sure the router you decide to buy has enough ports to serve all the peripheries (though you can buy hubs to increase the number of sockets, otherwise known as ports).

Some routers have USB ports, while others don’t. The general reason to have a USB port built into your router is so you can share content with other people on your network. The most common reason devices to add to your router includes a USB thumb drive, a media server or storage device that doesn’t already support network data transfer.

Whether you need one or how many you need depends on whether you have a USB-enabled device you want to share on your network and how many separate devices you’d like to share. You may also want to look into whether the router you’ve got your eye on uses USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 – the latter of which offers faster data transfer speeds.

MU-MIMO

MU-MIMO (multiple user, multiple input, multiple output) is a relatively new Wi-Fi standard that makes a router more suitable for homes where multiple people are using the same connection concurrently for data-intensive applications.

For example, if you like to stream videos while your other half likes to play streamed games, you’re likely to see a certain degree of latency on both sides with a standard SU-MIMO (single user, multiple input, multiple output) router.

With MU-MIMO, as the name suggests, multiple people can use the same connection simultaneously, because it comprises multiple channels working at the same time. This means each device connected to the same router essentially has its own router through which to channel data.

Although MU-MIMO technology has been around for more than three years now, very few routers actually use the technology, so you may have to find you’ll have to shop around to find what you’re after, especially if you need to tick a lot of the other boxes mentioned here.