We upgraded to broadband about 2 months ago. The difference makes me understand better the unaligned expectations of information providers. It was also a good opportunity to revisit how our home network is set up and leverage other opportunities that are available.
I have always preferred DSL for internet. In theory, the direct line to your internet service provider should provide you with a constant bandwidth. Cable connections are shared among nearby consumers and so, a bit like everyone turning on the AC in a heatwave, bandwidth access might fluctuate. But I was aware that our household connection was probably not considered broadband, which the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
The irony is that we could have paid for faster DSL, broadband DSL, but would not have received it. The wiring from the ISP to our house could not support speeds over 15 Mbps. The real speeds were closer to 6 Mbps download. When our house was full – 5 of us – we could easily consume that bandwidth. We were fortunate that some of the games kids played were offline. And a lot of our streaming media came from a server in our basement, which didn’t require internet bandwidth.
[Dusts off soap box] People who do not have broadband may not be able to afford it, so it is good to see the FCC offering subsidies and some other governments like New York state are capping costs. Others live in places where there is no wiring or the wiring doesn’t support broadband. The focus on broadband can also obscure the existence of people who do not have devices to connect to it, even if they get help to afford it. Broadband doesn’t eliminate the need for information providers to consider who they exclude when they select their delivery method.
But months of work from home and the shift to online school meant that fewer of us were required to max out our bandwidth. We decided to switch to cable, which gave us greater potential speeds. It’s been two months and, in general, it’s been a good shift.
A shift from DSL to cable required a new modem. We do not use cable video media so I also had to figure out if any of our cable wall ports worked. Fortunately, when the ISP-provided modem arrived, there was one port that worked.
ISPs require specific modems for compatibility with their networks. Our ISP offers a modem for free (to be returned at the end of the service). This was useful as it eliminated the $100 cost of getting a new one. Our DSL modem, which we’d upgraded about 18 months ago for $100, will go into the old tech bin in case it can be reused.
You can definitely pay more than $100 for a cable or DSL modem but I don’t believe cost equals value in networking technology. We know someone who is shopping for faster internet because of kids at home and someone suggested a $500 modem. It’s wasted expense.
Not for long though. Modems and routers that are out of date should be upgraded or tossed. Even the “new” to us cable modem was a few years old and I was a little bit leery of it. You can log into your internet modem and secure it, as well as get firmware updates from the vendor.
Move to a Single Router/Modem Setup
Our normal network set up was a network router to provide wireless and other services. The modem just sat in bridge mode, enabling the connection to the ISP but not doing much else. One goal I had was to move to a single device that handled all of the functions. This is technically possible. Unfortunately, the modem we have meant that this goal eluded me.
The Hitron CGN3U cable modem arrived from the ISP. It appears to be a common brand and model in Canada, with our ISP and others offering it as an option. It is simple enough to configure – far more so than the SmartRG DSL modem we’d been using. On paper, the Hitron could handle everything we needed.
I have helped family members and friends select network hardware before. One question that arises is whether to get a combined device – modem/router/wifi – or to get the pieces separately. There’s no right answer. In our case, we already owned one device – router/wifi – so we could have bought just a modem. If you have no network hardware, a device that is new-ish that handles everything should be fine. The modem is usually defined by your ISP, though, and may define what your choices are.
In fact, it couldn’t. We have an older game console – Sony PS3 – and it was unable to reliably connect to the new device when it was acting as a router. And the Hitron device would not enable internal streaming of media – it wouldn’t allow discovery of a UPNP or DLNA music server.
It could be because this modem was first released in 2013. It’s free for a reason, I expect. After battling it for a few days, I decided to return to the set up that had worked before. I reconfigured the modem to act as a bridge to the rest of our network, and put our separate router back into place.
Easy, right? Except that, throughout this, people are using the internet. Work from home and online school only made this more difficult, in that maintenance windows are limited. I’ve posted before about how work from home has not eliminated corporate tech support. It’s just shifted it to the worker in their home.
Securing the Network
The new modem was now acting as a dumb bridge. I could really have just used the router as it had been and called it a day. The router doesn’t care what the connection is to the ISP, so whether your modem is cable or DSL, your router is pretty much operating the same way.
When you have configured your router, you can usually export your settings. This can be useful if you ever have to do a factory reset. I had made some configuration changes to the router but, when I realized it was going to be back in use, I imported my old settings to get it back into its accustomed role.
But a moment of change is a good time to see if you can do things better.
The first place I looked at was encrypted DNS. Our router was configured to use Cloudflare’s encrypted DNS. Since every device on our network uses DHCP, they use whatever DNS servers the router tells them to use. Our original setting was to use the 220.127.116.11 configuration. One improvement with our modem is that we could now turn on IPv6 support in our router, and use the Cloudflare IPv6 DNS 2606:4700:4700::1111.
Since I first started using Cloudflare, they have updated their offering. As this blog post about Cloudflare for Families says, if you use 18.104.22.168, DNS requests that would send you to a malware site will be blocked. 22.214.171.124 will filter out adult content. It’s an easy configuration to make. I could see a public library using 126.96.36.199 on its public terminals, especially in jurisdictions that mandate filtering on public library computers used by children. If you want DNS with more nuanced filtering, you could look at OpenDNS (my post here). I chose to go with 188.8.131.52 because I’m more worried about malware than content filtering.
The other thing I decided to revisit was tackle tracker blocking. I have in the past used the Windows hosts file on each PC to block advertisers and trackers. This is a bit of a pain because you have to keep touching the PCs as the list changes. Also, while the list is extensive, the reality is that many of the sites are not ones that we’d ever be tracked by because we don’t use media that uses them.
I decided to try to do something centrally. So I was thrilled when I saw this post on OpenSource.com about using a Raspberry Pi and Pihole to intercept trackers. I happened to have an old Raspberry Pi in the tech bin, used by a kid who has now migrated to more powerful technology. I played around with but the Pi is a bit old in the tooth and I was worried that, by passing all web requests through it, I’d slow down the network’s traffic.
So I returned to the router. I ended up going to a bunch of common web sites and, using my tracker blocking browser extensions, flagging which ones I was hitting. I ended up with a list of about 100, including the following. Then I went back to the router and plugged each one into the blocked site list.
doubleclick.net rubiconproject.com scorecardresearch.com graph.facebook.com c.amazon-adsystem.com hb.districtm.io googleads.g.doubleclick.net securepubads.g.doubleclick.net api.flyertown.ca cdn.krxd.net sb.scorecardresearch.com googletagmanager.com outbrain.com assets.adobedtm.com ...
This should mean that, although a site loads up with a tracker in place, the listening site doesn’t get notified. It doesn’t stop Facebook or Amazon or other sites from working. It just blocks the trackers.
Broadband and Cable
The speeds are noticeably faster. We used to warn everyone in the house when someone had a large download and it had to be both throttled and scheduled for times when other people weren’t working. Some apps will allow you to throttle – limit your download consumption – but you can also use an app like Netlimiter.
Even with the faster speeds, we are still using throttling. We’ve estimated our normal download speeds and no-one gets to consume more than half. The reality is that most web browsing and even video watching has plenty of space. It’s when there is a Windows 10 update or a game file update that it matters.
The connectivity is a lot less reliable than DSL was. We rarely had DSL outages without there being a physical wiring problem. We lose cable access at least weekly, with one 12 hour outage. I don’t think this would cause any of us to want to drop broadband but it creates additional uncertainty in our work and meetings. When university students can get failed if their online proctored exam fails, it’s an issue.
All in all, it’s been a good change. A good improvement to our ability to get work and school done. And an opportunity to revisit how we interact with the internet.