Plumbing the Third Home Utility: Internet

Plumbing the Third Home Utility: Internet

In fifty years or so having gas pipes in the house will be as retro as a coal scuttle. The timeline for peak oil may shift this way and that, but when you have a resource that takes millions of years to produce and only hundreds to consume, it’s going to run out sooner or later.

That will leave us with just three main utilities: electricity, water, and internet.

Water is a topic for another day. Today I want to talk about your internet connection, and more specifically the plumbing that routes it around your home once it gets there.

Plumbing Your Connection

I use the term ‘plumbing’ because even if they don’t really understand how it works, most people are familiar with the key elements of a water/hot water and heating system. You have a mains pipe and stopcock where it comes in. Pipes carry the water around the house. You may have a header tank. You have a boiler. You have radiators. You have taps and showerheads. This stuff we have come to know and understand.

A typical netgear modem/router/switch combo

Increasingly people will become familiar with the core plumbing elements of the third utility: internet. You probably already know what has become known as a ‘router’ — the internet equivalent of your mains pipe and stopcock. This device is actually four different things in one:

  • A ‘router’ is strictly a device that connects two networks — the great, wide internet (or at least your service provider’s portion of it) and your home network
  • A ‘modem’ is needed to communicate between your router and the service provider’s network using the relevant standards. Think of it as a translator between the language of your home network and the language of your service provider’s systems. This will be Digital Subscriber Line for most people, connecting over a phone line. Or Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) for those on a cable modem.
  • A ‘switch’ is what enables multiple devices to connect to each other on a network — in this case your home network — routing packets of data between each one. Your home modem/router/switch also includes something called a Dynamic Host Control Protocol (DHCP) server that gives each device on your network a separate address and tells them how to access the wider Internet.
  • A ‘Wi-Fi Access Point’ is what enables you to access the switch wirelessly, providing a Wi-Fi network and the associated security required.

Internet Boilers and Radiators

In addition to this core piece of kit I think we’re going to soon see a number of others become as standard as boilers and radiators.

Network Attached Storage

Everything is moving to the cloud, but there remain good arguments for storing some stuff locally — at least in the short to medium term. Locally stored stuff doesn’t have to be streamed down from a remote location so will arrive quicker and more reliably. It is under your control so you can have confidence in how it is backed up. And we have a lot of digital stuff to store: every song or photo needs around 5MB, films between a hundred and a thousand times that. With HD home videos and an ever increasing pixel count for our digital cameras, our home-generated content alone can rapidly swallow hundreds of gigabytes.

You could store all this stuff on a PC, but better to have something purpose-built for the task that can be expanded as required and accessed over the network by all your devices — PCs, laptops, smartphones, tablets, set-top boxes, TVs and consoles. This is Network Attached Storage and it is very cost effective, starting from around £70 for a single drive unit up to around £310 for a QNAP TS-412 4-bay unit similar to the one I’m currently testing. This has four ‘bays’ where you can insert hard disks to add capacity as your needs grow and is capable of streaming media to multiple devices over your network. QNAP has done a very nice job of explaining all the possible uses on its website here, though you may need to get to grips with a few acronyms.

Physical-World Interfaces

Sometimes digital just isn’t enough — you need to create or control something in the physical world.

Most commonly these days that means printing something out on paper (though before long we will all be rendering objects in three dimensions). Printing from a tablet or smartphone isn’t always easy or even possible by default, so a class of bridging technologies is beginning to appear, making it easier for us to connect our portable devices to our existing printers. These include the beautifully simple Lantronix xPrintServer that I’ve been testing recently. Plug it into your printer and your network and away you go. It discovers your printer and installs the drivers, and from then on you can print from any iOS (iPod, iPad, iPhone) device on your home network — as well as your PCs, laptops etc

The more adventurous can also consider something like the Tellstick Net to control home automation devices such as light switches, blinds, thermostats etc.

Range Extenders

With internet increasingly crucial you don’t want access to be limited to certain parts of the house. The same way you might extend heating into a loft conversion, you’re going to want to extend internet access and one access point won’t always do it. There are a number of options available.

You could send internet over the power lines, using something like the Power Ethernet combined sockets and transceivers I have been using in my home setup for a while. These simply replace a pair of double sockets with single power sockets plus four Ethernet sockets. Here the internet access is carried over the power lines, meaning you don’t need any extra cabling and overcoming any issues with Wi-Fi reach. They won’t give the ultimate in performance but are very convenient.

You could also use a booster like the Netgear WN1000RP. This clever little box plugs into a power socket and pulls in a connection from your existing Wi-Fi network. It then creates a new, stronger signal that fills any black spots. Again it is very simple to set up and works well, albeit again suffering a slight performance drop from your primary Wi-Fi network.

These things are not future technology: they are here now. But they are not in most homes. Soon though they will become familiar as radiators, a standard part of using what is fast becoming our most important utility.

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This article is by Tom Cheesewright. This post forms part of the Future of Cities series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Cities page.

Tom Cheesewright

Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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