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179 - General notes on sharing a high speed Internet connection

This bulletin was prepared to address a question posed by six college students who are about to rent a house together and want to know how to share a single high speed (broadband) connection to the Internet. It is a little more technical than most of our bulletins and if you are not considering setting up a network or shared Internet connection, you might just want to make a mental note about this, and come back to it if you need the information later on. There is no practical way to discuss technical specifics in a brief overview because there are probably fifty different ways to configure a shared Internet connection. What equipment you use depends first, on what equipment your broadband provider supplies and second, on whether or not you will need to have one or more wireless connections.

Here are some starting thoughts -
  1. The two types of broadband connections offered in the Denver area are DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), provided by Qwest, and cable modem broadband service, offered by Comcast. Both services require locally installed equipment, so you still have to check with Qwest or Comcast to see if their respective services are available where you live. As a DSL subscriber, there are literally dozens of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) you can choose from. Qwest will provide the actual connection but the ISP will connect you to the Internet. DSL is offered in different speeds, depending on the equipment Qwest has installed in your particular neighborhood. Entry-level speed for DSL is 256 Mbps (Mega bits per second). The next highest speed is 638 Mbps, with higher speeds recently becoming available. By comparison, cable modem service is offered single source. Comcast will be your ISP and Comcast will provide the connection. The cable modem speed is currently 1.5 Gbps (Giga bits per second. It is also generally more expensive. Any of these speeds is fast enough but if you believe that your Internet connection will regularly be in use by all six users simultaneously, you might want to go with the fastest service available in your area.
  2. When you order your broadband connection, be sure it comes with an external modem, and not an internal modem. Internal modems (meaning a card installed inside one person's computer) have been phased out for the most part, but just ask to be sure. You care because using an internal modem will force the other 5 users to have that person's computer turned on (and working properly), in order to access the Internet. You do not want to be dependent on anyone else's computer but your own.
  3. There are two classes of commonly sold wireless devices, distinguished by different data transmission speeds. The two technologies are: 802.11b and 802.11g. They run at 11Mbps and 52Mbs respectively. There is no difference between the two in signal strength or effective range. I recommend that you pay the extra money to buy the faster "g" model equipment. In fact, you might read up on any newer technologies as then emerge. This technology is still being invented, so the market offerings can change weekly. Don't assume that this article is right up to date!
  4. If you do NOT want to be penalized by a roommate's risky Internet behavior or ill-advised computer practices, then DON'T set up a file-sharing network. Stick to just sharing the Internet connection. If you find the need to transfer files between computers, either burn a CD or email the file(s) to the other person.
  5. Wireless technology is very popular at the moment but there are things you should consider before jumping in on it. Hardwired connections are technically straight forward, reliable, and fast. By comparison, wireless connections are much more technically demanding to install and are slower and less reliable to operate. Just as cell phones tend to drop calls, so do wireless connections tend to drop, for no apparent reason. When you monitor signal strength, it can often be seen to vary widely from one minute to the next. Since wireless transmission is nothing more than radio technology, it also raises security issues. Your wireless signal can be picked up by anyone within range of your signal. Unless you intend to let others share your Internet connection for free, or eavesdrop on your data as you use your computer, you will need to enable some form of security to prevent them from doing so. Hardwired connections have none of these concerns. My recommendation is to use hardwired connections wherever possible. If there is no practical way to run wire without major work on your house or office, then wireless may be the right solution. Just realize that there are a number of additional concerns when deciding to use wireless.
The basic components of a shared (multiple user) high-speed Internet connection are as follows
(This is also the order they are connected in):
  1. A DSL or cable modem to connect you to the Internet through your Internet Service Provider (ISP).
    A single physical connection to the incoming broadband signal.
  2. A "router" to keep track of individual users and route incoming and outgoing data to the correct user.
    Connects to device 1.
  3. Some way to either physically wire or wirelessly connect each of the users to the router.
    All connected to device 2. Routers are capable of managing up to 254 computers, as long as there is a way to connect each of those computers. Routers designed for home or small office use typically come with either one or four hardwire connection points (Ethernet ports). If you need more than this number of hardwire connections, a "hub" can be plugged into the router to add the additional connections. In practical terms, we either hardwire the connections using Category-5 cables (known as "Cat-5"), or we connect to the router wirelessly.

The complication in all this comes from the fact that equipment manufacturers provide these devices either separately or in combination. When they combine them, they sometimes give them different names. There is not a lot of standardization of names and, depending on how the devices are combined, the requirements for setup and configuration can vary a lot.

Here's a real example -
The Computer Skills Group (CSG) Internet connection is provided through a Denver headquartered ISP called Ecentral (Ecentral is highly recommended), with Qwest providing the actual DSL service, including the hardware. Qwest provides us with an Actiontec device they call a "Wireless DSL Gateway-GT701-wg". This single device combines the DSL modem (item 1, above), the router (item 2, above), 802.11g wireless capability and one Ethernet hardwired connection point (part of item 3 above). Because CSG has three computers we wanted to hardwire, we had to add an additional device (called a "hub") to provide the additional hardwired connection points. No matter how you do it though, all three requirements must be met.

One more important note regarding wireless connections - Whenever wireless is involved, the instructions will say that at least one computer is "recommended" to be hardwired to the main wireless device. That statement is very misleading. For all intents and purposes, the one recommended hardwired connection is mandatory.

Built-in technologies to look for in these devices -
There are two technical features which need to be in at least one device connected between your computer and the Internet. If you are using more than one device with those features, it needs to be turned on in one device only, and turned off in the others. The device with these features turned on must be connected between all other devices and the Internet. The two features are called NAT (Network Address Translation) and DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol). Devices which have either of those features, will most likely have them both.

In this example with six people sharing an Internet connection, the features will be built into the router. NAT and DHCP combine to provide you with hardware firewall protection from Internet hackers and make your computers invisible to the outside world. The router is the only device that can be "seen" by other Internet users and those users will be unable to "see" any of the computers connected behind your router. From the Internet side, hackers will be unable to learn whether there are two computers, six computers, or one hundred computers sharing your connection.

If wireless connections are to be used, two essential steps must be taken to properly configure the feature. First, wireless must be enabled (turned on). Second, at least one level of security should be enabled. The most elementary of the security technologies is known as WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) and it is found on virtually all wireless devices. It allows you to specify a "key value" which is then used to encrypt the communication between the main wireless device and each of the user's computers. WEP is only a basic level of security but it will prevent the casual theft of your connection or your data. Thieves or hackers must be within range of your signal (100 yards or less), but if they are technical and determined, they will break through WEP security in a matter of minutes. The saving grace, of course, is that your wireless signal is short range (100 yards or less). Unless you happen to live next door to a hacker, it's unlikely that your neighbor would know enough to be, or even care about, hacking your signal.

There are newer, higher level, more secure technologies being developed and released, even as I type this. A year from now, there is no telling what the recommended security technology will be. Just be sure to use at least the basic WEP, then let your circumstances dictate whether more than that is needed.

Okay, that's the overview. You should have a little better idea now of what's involved in setting up computers to share high-speed connections. Good luck with it.

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