There are many choices for connecting to the internet from home, and many ways to set up your own home area network. This page discusses some of your choices and the benefits and drawbacks to each. We also discuss imporant MUST's to protect your system from viruse's, worms, malicious users, and drive by attacks.

There are additional pages that discuss specific things you might want to do onthe internet, including:

The first step in deciding on your approach for network access is to consider what you want to do with the network, how often you require access, how fast you need the network to be, you ant to do it, and how much you are willing to pay.

The questions

  • What do you plan to do with the Internet? Will you only be sending and receiving text based email and viewing web pages or do you want access to multimedia contect (audio and video)? Will you be sharing pictures with family and how big are the images (photos) you will be sending and receiving? Will you be creating a web page for yourself, your family, or your business?
  • Do you have more than one computer to access the internet at a time? Do you have more than one computer in different parts of your house? Will you need to use the telephone while you are using the Internet? Do you have a second phone line?
  • Are you a beginning user of the Internet, or do you use it regularly at school or work?

    Some answers

    Today, you really want high speed internet access, and an "always-on" connection. There are still people who use dialup connections, but these are slow and seem even slower today because so much email includes images or large files. The cost of dialup plans can be as lows as $10 from NetZero, or around $24 with services like America Online (which includes additional content). The rest of this page focuse on high speed network access. When considering internet access, there are two aspects to consider, how you will connect to the Internet, and how the systems at your house will be connected with one another. Continue reading so that you can make an educated choice when you are presented with options from your internet providers.

    Connecting to the outside world - The Internet

    If you want high speed internet access from your home, your main choices are Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) offered by your phone provider or sometimes by your ISP (like America Online or Earthlink) who through another company will arrange to lease the line from your phone provider, and cable modems (offered by your cable company). Your choice may be further limited if you are too far from your central telphone office (in which case DSL might not be available), or if there are no cable lines that come to your house (note that with most cable companies it is not actually necessary for you to subscribe to cable TV to get a cable modem, but they will usually provide a discount if you get both).

    The cable companies have recently been increasing the available speed on their system to better compete with the DSL offering from the phone companies, and in most major cities I would recomend choosing a cable modem. However, if you do not have cable television, you may find the DSL offerings from your telephone provider to be less expensive, and they will still provide plenty of speed for most uses.

    When wired connections are not available, or when mobile access is required, some choose to go with wirless network access providers. More information on using technogies like satellite, 3g and 4g phones, Wimax, and Wi-Fi for the connection to the home can be found at Wireless Internet.Org.

    Connecting inside your house - Your Local Network

    If you only have a single computer you do not need a local network (unless perhaps your computer is a laptop and you want to use it wirelessly from different parts of your house). Without a local network, your cable line will connect to your cable modem, or your DSL modem will plug into your telephone line (and if you are using the same line as your primary phone, you will install filters on your other phones to prevent interference). You will need a network card for your computer and you will run a network cable from the network port on your computer to the cable modem or DSL modem (technically, this connection is a local network, but with only one computer and your modem, most pople don't think of it as such).

    If you will have multiple computers using the network at the same time, if you want wireless access when using your laptop in your house, or if you have other network devices to connect (such as a network printer), you will need to set up a more elaborate local network. Such a network can be used to allow the sharing of printers, scanners, faxes, and files among the systems on your local network. This interconnection also makes these resources more vulnerable to compromise if any of the systems on your network become infected by viruses or worms, or if someone manages to break into your system through the wireless connection or your router, which is why it is important to set up firewalls and other defense measures described at the bottom of this page.

    Some cable modem and DSL providers offer to lease you the wired or wirless router needed to provide acces to multiple computers but they will charge extra to do so. You can also purchase a router yourself, connect it to your cable or DSL modem, and once configured, you will be able to connect to the internet from any of the computers on your internal network. Note that the terms of some cable modem and DSL services limit use to one computer at a time unless you pay for an enhanced level of service, so to keep within the terms of your agreement you should determine if this limitation applies and subscribe at the appropriate level of service for your actual use. Most of the routers you can purchase provide "network address translation", which means that from the outside, it will look like all of your computers are a single computer - i.e. connections will be from a single internet address.

    Router Recomendation

    My recomendation for wireless router is the Linksys WRT54GS which provides a wireless access point, four port wired hub, a router, and hardware firewall. If you don't need wireless access you can get the Linksys BEFSR41 which otherwise provides the same functionailty but with only the four port wired hub. For the small difference in price, even if you don't need wireless access now, I recomend getting the wireless router as you will likely want it at some point in the future.

    Configuring your Router

    When you install your router, be sure to enable firwall protection, effecively blocking all connection inbound to your network from the internet, but allowing connections initiated from the inside your network. For most users, this is the best configuration, although it may cause problems for some applications, primarily if you have servers running on your network that you want to reach from the outside. This will not be an issue for most users.

    Additionally, it is extremely important that you set up wireless security on your routers. Without this, your neighbors, or anyone driving by your house will be able to access your home network, possibly connect to and read data from your computers, and use your network connection. If they reach the internet through your open wirless connection, from the outside it will look like you are the one connecting and you could be blamed for whatever they do.

    Of the configuration options for wireless security, I recommend one of the WPA options, but depending on configuration of the wirless devices you will use (e.g. you have an old wirless card or software on your laptop), you may have to settle for WEP. While better than nothing, WEP security has been broken, and will not withstand an attempt by someone that knows how. The main security benefit of WEP is that it will prevent inadvertant connection to your network by your neighbors. WPA is better, but it is important to note that it only protects your data in-transit on the wireless network and it doesn't prevent discovery of data by other users on your network. Thus, in addition to the wirless security mechanisms you employ, you should also use SSL or TLS for web connections, tools like SSH for connections to remote computer systems, a virtual private network to connect to your main office, and email encryption tools like PGP or S/MIME to protect email communications.

    Important warning

    As already mentioned, when using a cable modem or DSL to provide internet access from your home network, your systems are always connected. That means they are more vulnerable to attack, as compared with dialup systems which are only vulnerable when they are actually connected. For this reason, it is extremly important that you use a router that provides a hardware firewall, in addition to the host based firewall available in recent version of Windows XP, or available as part of your security software suite.

    Such a firewall will limit some kinds of attacks, but not all. In particular, as long as it is configured properly, the firewall is effective at blocking in-bound attempts to compromise your systems.

    A firwall does not block all attacks; in particular it will not block viruses received through e-mail or from the web since these infections reach your system when you make an out-bound connection to view a web page or to download e-mail.. Once your system is infected, a firwall will usually not be effective at protecting your system or network, since the damage caused (recording and sending password, sending spam for others as if it originated from your system, launcing denial of service attacks on other parts of the Internet) by such virues originates inside your network.

    For this reason, it is extemeley critical that you also install and maintain appropriate anti-virus, anti-spyware, and other security tools, and you should consider turning your system off when you are not using it.