The gateway is where your home network connects to your internet service provider, which provides you broadband service and a connection to the rest of the world.
In the past, this gateway consisted of multiple devices including, typically, a cable modem or DSL modem, a router, Ethernet hub and a wireless access point.
In recent years these multiple devices which made up a gateway have been transformed into one single device which provides all the functionality of a modem, router, wireless access point and Ethernet hub for additional wired network devices using the included four RJ-45 Ethernet ports.
This single gateway device has reduced the cost involved with connecting your home to the internet as only one device needs to be purchased. Under many broadband provider plans this gateway device may also be provided at a free or monthly rental cost.
These “plug-n-play” gateway devices certainly make connecting your home to the internet easy. They also provide maximum functionality with providing the basics for a home network. But is this really the best and most scalable gateway option for your home network?
What Makes a Gateway Scalable?
Does a scalable home gateway imply purchasing expensive, commercial grade networking equipment? No, there is such a thing as spending more money than needed. However, when considering a scalable home gateway one should consider growth and points of failure.
Growth involves both the physical connection of additional devices and the software provided to configure and monitor these devices.
Typical home gateway devices have enough wired Ethernet ports to accommodate four additional computers or network devices, including printers. For many homes, which have little interest other than surfing the internet and using email, this will be more than sufficient. For homes with whole house entertainment and set top boxes with connections to the internet, four RJ-45 Ethernet ports will not be enough. At the very least an 8 or 16 port Ethernet switch will be needed to accommodate additional network devices.
Depending on the size of your home, additional wireless access points may also need to be added. Wireless access points have improved in recent years especially with the latest 802.11n specifications. Not all Internet Service Provider(ISP) supplied gateways offer the 802.11n wireless option, many still offer the older and slower 802.11g. You may need your own wireless access point device simply to achieve the faster speeds.
In other scenarios just one access point may not be sufficient to reach all areas of your home. This may be from placement or the fact that your home is too large or even the material in your home walls and floors is preventing the signal from reaching all areas.
The UniFi WiFi System offers the ability to install multiple access points throughout your home at a very reasonable and affordable cost. I’ve already written about using the UniFi WiFi Controller software in a separate article. I personally have this running in our home. While there are some “quirks” with the software, the access points themselves have proven to be extremely reliable.
One of the best things to happen with router software in recent years is the growth of open source options. DD-WRT and Tomato Firmware are two popular examples of firmware options for software to use with managing your home router. Their purpose is simply to provide professional grade options for your home gateway which are not offered by the basic firmware provided by the manufacturer of the device.
For a comparison of the Asus firmware with both the DD-WRT open source firmware and the Tomato open source software see the following: Asus RT-N16 Router Firmware Overview.
Recently, another issue with using only the ISP provided gateway device for your home network is that they may not even allow you access to the firmware software. This happened from personal experience when switching from AT&T Uverse to Comcast Xfinity.
We had no choice but to use their provided device as we had our home phone service through them as part of a bundled package. It’s pretty easy to find a cable modem, as I’ve written about in a separate article Motorola SB6121 SURFboard DOCSIS 3.0 Cable modem. However, finding one of these devices with integrated phone as an option is not easy.
The Arris TG862 device provided by Comcast provides all the standard home gateway functionality including modem, router and wireless connection, but the unit was locked from user access and the password was not provided. The installer said there were too many problems with users setting the configuration incorrectly, so I would need to contact their support group to have them change settings remotely.
I could see where this was going though as Comcast was also offering an extended home networking support option. What better way to force customers to sign up for this than to restrict access to their devices, which I guess they have the right to do. The first request I made was for them to set their device to pass-through mode so I could use my own router device.
Bottom line – Keep control of your own home network!
Gateway Points of Failure
What happens when the gateway device provided by your internet service provider goes bad? You call their support number and during the downtime your entire home network is down. This is the scenario that happens if your home gateway consists of a single device provided by your broadband service provider.
If your gateway device develops problems, the only issue with your home network should be that you lose your internet broadband connection. In today’s electronic culture this is a big enough problem, but it should not interfere with your ability to print documents from your desktop or laptop computers.
If you have whole house entertainment then you should be able to continue to use your home network to communicate with all of your network devices. There’s no reason you can’t watch recorded television shows or movies.
How Difficult and Expensive is a Scalable Home Gateway?
There is not a lot of equipment required to keep your gateway solid and reliable.
The first device to purchase is your own router with an included wireless access point. With this on your home network the router software provided by your ISP can be disabled so you that you can fully control the settings appropriate for your home. This also gives you the option to install open source router firmware giving you the maximum functionality available for your router.
The second device would be an Ethernet switch. These have dropped in price and are affordable and reliable. With one of these in your network, even if your WIFI does not work correctly, you continue to have network connectivity through your wired devices. It’s rare for your wired connections to go bad. If installed properly they are proven and reliable.
Further expansion options include a separate WiFi network involving multiple access points. In the past equipment like this has been unaffordable for the average home owner. But technology today is becoming more affordable and capable, giving all home owners the option to include a scalable home gateway in their network.