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Issue #768: April 10-16, 2022

Q: I have a student who needs to set up wireless access in a new apartment. This would be used by two people, for school, movies and light gaming. I have two questions.

We can get a cable modem with wireless from our Internet Service Provider. My experience (years ago) was that the wireless that comes with a cable modem was slow. So, I got a medium-priced wireless router, and we look at two ugly black boxes, to get wireless in the house.

Is this still necessary? Or can my student & the roommate get by with one (modem and wifi combined)?

Second question – for that usage, can they get the lowest-speed package from Spectrum or should they choose a more-spendy package?

– Carla C.
Tampa, Florida

A: As far as I know (and I assure you – I can’t possibly know all the answers) the equipment provided by an Internet Service Provider, or ISP, works just fine.  This equipment was chosen by the ISP to work with their specific service.  It would not be very good for their business to provide equipment that did not do justice to the service they are providing.  So, I wouldn’t worry too much about whether you’re going to get a slow connection from ISP-provided hardware.

One extra thing that you do get is the peace of mind of knowing that the hardware you have is guaranteed to work with the service.  When you use your own hardware and a problem arises, as likely as not the customer service people will refuse to help you.  They will tell you point-blank that they support their own hardware and can’t possibly know the configuration settings of every possible piece of 3rd-party hardware that a customer might try to connect.  I guess they assume that if you’re tech savvy enough to provide your own hardware, you must know what you’re doing when it comes to configuring it and getting it to work.

As far as the appearance of those “two ugly black boxes” there’s no reason that you have to put them right out in plain sight.  My modem and primary router/switch are in my attic. I have switches in other places in the house too: inside cabinets, atop bookcases, etc.  Get creative and hide your gear.  Might I suggest that you cut cable access holes in the back of a decorative basket, and put your ugly boxes inside?  Nobody needs to know they are there.

As for your second question, any reasonably accurate answer would require either a working familiarity with the service plans offered by the ISP you mentioned, or it would require looking it up online. I will leave it to your clever imagination to guess which one I did, but I will also remind you that I happen to be the world’s sole holder of the coveted Geekudan Black Belt in the mystical art of Google-Fu.

I try to write my columns in such a way that the information is usable by people of all levels of geekiness, and to understand and make use of the information I’m about to provide, one needs to understand a few terms.  First of all is bandwidth.  Many people mistake this for Internet speed, but the two are not the same.  Bandwidth is the maximum amount of information that can be sent over a connection.  It is measured in bits per second or bps, usually with a K (Kilo – thousand) or M (Mega – million) in front. These are bits not bytes, so if you want to know the actual number of bytes, you need to divide.

Of the three activities you mentioned – school, movies and light gaming – it is the movies that are going to have the largest cost in terms of bandwidth required to perform the function.  Naturally, the higher resolution content one is streaming, the more bandwidth is required to receive the content.  Older non-HD (high definition) movies will use 1.1 to 2.5 Mbps, while HD movies will require about 5 Mbps.  4K movies, the highest resolution typically streaming today require as much as 25 Mbps for a smooth viewing experience, without intermittent pauses for the bane of online content watchers – the dreaded notification “Buffering – please wait.”  The lowest service tier I could find for the ISP you mentioned was 200 Mbps.  So even if both people in the house were streaming 4K videos simultaneously, there would still be plenty of bandwidth to go around.  Be forewarned though – I didn’t see Wi-Fi included until their top-level tier.  You should ask them, of course, but you might wind up using your own gear anyway.

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