For well over 100 years, the telephone was the primary means of communication in our lives - first at home and then on the go. Today, the Internet is the backbone of communications, enabling us to talk, text, email, video chat, stream or download all forms of media and access information anywhere, anytime.
A hard-wired or wireless home network facilitates communication between PCs, tablets, smartphones and countless other devices so we can share information, stream audio and video from a home-office PC to a laptop or media player/TV in the living room, print wirelessly and more. That network provides a gateway to the Internet as well, allowing us to stay connected with family, friends and colleagues, access streaming services like Netflix and monitor or control the growing number of Internet-enabled household devices.
It also serves as the hub for today's home automation and whole-house entertainment systems.
Building a Digital Foundation
"The network is the digital foundation of the home," says Aaron Gutin, vice president of sales and marketing for Los Angeles-based Access Networks. "Like a physical foundation, if it is weak in any way so are all the electronics that sit on it. The home network is the primary subsystem in a home automation system."
Gutin advises homeowners who are planning for a multi-room audio/video or home-automation project to think of the network as an infrastructure investment like electric or plumbing.
The Crossroads of Communication
Why is the network so important? "Most A/V and home-automation products these days are IP-driven," explains Matt Bolger, project manager for Piscataway, New Jersey-based Electronics Design Group (EDG). An average home can easily have 25 or more devices connected to the network, he says. TVs, Blu-ray players, media streamers, A/V receivers, Xbox and PS3 consoles, wireless music systems and more each get their own IP address on the network.
"All of those devices are talking with each other on a regular basis, grabbing information from the web and sharing information with each other 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Gutin says. "It's an information engine."
Robust Hardware and Expertise Required
Gutin says homeowners who are investing in home automation often mistakenly believe that the demands of a modern home-automation system can be met with common hardware you can buy at a typical big-box store.
"Standard devices, such as inexpensive routers, are not prepared to service their home and do not offer the integrator tools to solve problems" - tools that provide remote access to the system so the integrator can troubleshoot and often fix problems, avoiding costly service calls. The bottom line: You need an experienced installer who knows how to assemble a robust network - one built with the same "enterprise" hardware businesses use.
Take Wi-Fi, which has become ubiquitous in our lives. "Your wireless is only as good as routing and switching," Gutin says. "Without a good router and good switch, it's not going to do the job."
Factor in the growing trend of using iPhones and iPads to control home entertainment, lighting, temperature and you-name-it, and the network becomes even more critical. "If you use basic, off-the-shelf wireless access points in a large home, you'll drop off one and have to disconnect and reconnect to another if you're walking around with an iPad," Bolger says. By contrast, a properly-built network will see that the signal is getting low on one access point and jump seamlessly to the next one.
As we look ahead, the home network becomes even more important. "It's really the future of entertainment," Gutin says. "We have more and more cloud services at our disposal, and the cloud is absolutely dependent on your home being connected to the Internet. Whether it's an iPad streaming music from Pandora or Netflix on your television, it is all being delivered by your network. The ISP gets it to the pole and to your modem but after the modem it's up to the homeowner to build an engine to move that information around the house."
When you're ready to move forward with your home networking project, be sure to consult a professional. Click here for a list of CEDIA-member home technology professionals in your area.