Invest in Your Network

The landscape of our entertainment systems and how we enjoy them has continued to evolve with changing technology. And the importance of different components has changed right along with it. Remember when a cassette player/recorder was the most important music playback device? And then it was a CD player. And then a CD changer. And then an iPod. Now you probably never use any of those devices any longer, rather relying on streaming music from a drive on your home’s network, some cloud-based service like Pandora or Spotify, or beaming it via Bluetooth or AirPlay.

Where the most important piece of gear used to be the AV receiver, and then the smart, universal remote control, now I think we have moved on to a new MVP of the modern entertainment system: the network.

As a custom installer working with people setting up systems on a daily basis, my number one telephone troubleshooting call used to be, “I can’t get my TV to work.” (Virtually always something associated with the cable box, by the way.) However, that has recently been replaced with calls like, “I can’t get on the Internet,” “My Wi-Fi isn’t working,” and “My Netflix won’t stream in the bedroom.”

Between cord-cutting, binge-watching, and unique content like House of Cards and cat videos, Netflix and YouTube account for more than 50 percent of Internet traffic in North America (according to Sandvine’s biannual Global Internet Phenomena Report). It’s clear that more and more of us are seeking entertainment from the cloud.

Couple this with the huge host of connected devices comprising a “modern” system, where it’s not unusual to have multiple network devices per room. Things like AV receivers, Blu-ray players, streamers like Sonos, Apple TV, and Roku, Smart TVs, and cable/satellite set-top boxes all support Web connectivity.

Add in the devices used to access the Internet and network: smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops. Toss in other connected devices like thermostats, automation controllers, lighting systems, security systems, garage openers, video cameras, and even appliances, and you have a ton of always-on devices gobbling up their bits of the network pie.

And every single one of them goes down when the network fails. The network solution for many users is to use the modem/router/switch/Wi-Fi combo provided by their Internet service provider; typically the same company providing that unreliable pile of garbage known colloquially as a “cable box.” Other times, people will purchase a sub-$100 router from some big-box store.

Enterprise-grade networking systems provide faster processing and better performance.

The truth is, these basic devices were only ever intended to shuttle bits of data between a few devices, not handle the intensive demands of modern AV environments. The result of using these entry-level networking components is poor performance that manifests in stuttering audio/video, poor Wi-Fi performance, lockups, reboots, and ultimately, failure.

Much like high-end AV components, more robust, enterprise-grade networking systems provide faster processing and better cooling and are capable of handling multiple connections at once, providing full throughput on each port. Features like quality of service (QoS) allocate priority to high-bandwidth and time-critical functions like video streaming or online gaming versus a Google search. The ability to create virtual local area networks (VLANs) can segment traffic amongst different devices, similar to adding more lanes on the freeway. Managed switches can better steer the traffic of multicast devices like Sonos and Apple TV to keep them from locking up the system.

Further, higher-end wireless access points (WAPs) offer superior Wi-Fi performance, not only increasing speeds but also delivering far greater range and coverage. Whereas consumer WAPs are designed to handle a few simultaneous connections, enterprise-grade models can handle dozens or even hundreds, ensuring all your devices have access. By having more robust components, you can employ fewer WAPs throughout your home, delivering a stronger network with fewer handoff s from point to point and less interference, meaning you can walk around the house without AirPlay or that “world’s cutest cat!!!” video ever missing a beat.

Just as you wouldn’t power your home theater with the cheapest receiver, speakers, or display, it’s time we start choosing and investing in networking components with the same performance concerns.

Thanks to Access Networks and Pakedge for help on this column!

eugovector's picture

I had an electrician out to install wiring for a projector, and had him install Cat6 network while he was in the attic. Best $200 I've ever spent; definitely a better investment than wireless tech. Rock solid streaming of uncompressed Blu-ray files with a $20 100 mbit router.