Advice on network switch(s)/broadband extenders v's mesh for home use

justabear

Member
Context of problem:

First a bit of context setting to help with the questions I've listed below.

I've got a BT Home Hub 5 and live in a single level apartment constructed early 2000s, stud wall, with living room and two bedrooms. I'm on unlimited BT Infinity 2 but its probably called something else now.

I'm using BT Broadband Extender Flex (the black ones 500 model, all passthrough) one is situated next to Home Hub. The other 2 are in the living room and small bedroom (used as an office). The extender in the living room is a 3 port ethernet that connects the BT TV Box (retail version) and games consoles. This is situated on the other side of the living room to the home hub. The extender in the small bedroom is a single port ethernet which connects via a cable to a desktop computer.

Now sometimes I have to hold and press the link button at the top of the Flex extender in the home office to get the internet to work. It does this at least once a day. Every so often the BT TV box tells me its disconnected and I have to reconnect and sync the extender with the one plugged into the homehub. This is once every few weeks. I tried using TP Link smart plugs in different locations across the apartment and these just lost connection, or stopped working after a while. I gave up with smart plugs and had a different broadband extender to BT initially, but the BT branded ones seem to play nicer with the homehub. I don't have them plugged into extension leads, but I do have extension leads running from the passthrough on the broadband extenders. I have tried both with and without the extension leads plugged in, but it doesn't make any difference to the temporary disconnections.

A friend has advised that I can ditch the network adapters if they glitch and use the BT whole home dishes instead. My understanding is that I would require a network switch to plug into the dish with enough ports for each of the consoles, or smart devices in the living room.

I find that I can have a few things streaming around the place and then something needs to give. For example, if I use Wi-Fi on smart phone to watch a youtube video then I find streaming will pause elsewhere then re-start after a while, or the connection to the desktop PC will drop out. When I plug a laptop into the homehub directly and test the speed it is at the maximum (70mbps - I think? In fairness it has been a while since I've done that). Obviously, there have been slow downs due to number of users at home during these difficult times, so I'm not expecting it to be super speedy every minute of the day.

As if that wasn't enough, I am thinking about adding to my woes and would like to sync music between the living room and bedrooms through smart speakers, e.g. sonos, but I'm wary about buying them if the home Ethernet/Wi-Fi solution couldn't cope with smart plugs dotted about the place. I don't have smart heating, or anything else like that. I use Wi-Fi in the bedroom and have a fairly decent signal to stream music from an ipad connected via usb to the stereo. It would be nice to be able to connect to the internet via ethernet from the main bedroom, but it is not end of the world stuff if this proves to be a step too far.

Questions:
Which is more stable the BT dishes, or the plug in broadband extenders?
What's the best Ethernet switch to get for either the dishes or extenders? For example is it worth getting a 10/100 if I'm using a 500 model extender? Or should I opt for a 10/1000 if I'm using the dishes?
Or should I just carry on as I am with the occasional drop outs and forget trying to add anything else to the existing network?
BT haven't offered me a homehub upgrade in ages? Should I ask for the latest one, or is that not the problem? They keep offering me faster speeds though, but I'm not convinced it is the speed that is the problem on my set-up.

Any advice and suggestions both welcome and appreciated. If this post needs to go somewhere else then no problem, or if it has been discussed before then please send a link to the info.
 

mickevh

Distinguished Member
The best data networking (fastest and most reliable) is always achieved using "proper" cabled ethernet. Everything else - Wi-Fi, HomePlug/Powerline, etc. - is a compromise and often less reliable. If you have no option but to use something else, then we just have to be a bit "zen" about the fact that it is "less good" (clever as some of it is.)

Generally, I advise that if one cannot install "proper" wired ethernet, then HomePlug/Powerline is probably the "next best" thing to try. However, their performance is highly dependent on something never design for data networking - ie the mains. Some people have excellent results, some terrible and everything in between.

Extending your network over Wi-Fi (which is what the BT "discs" are) is a radio solution instead of using the mains. It might work better, it might work worse, you just don't know until you try it. Positioning of the discs relative to your router and each other can be important as they need to be "in range" of good signalling conditions to/from each other and any coverage area they serve to Wi-Fi client devices. This is a trueism of all Wi-Fi solutions, not just BT's. Unfortunately, radio is fundamentally unreliable and fickle so the concept of "stable Wi-Fi" is meaningless.

A "new router" is unlikely to fix this either - it's not the router that is failing and they don't "wear out."

Pretty much any ethernet switch will do. They are rarely "got wrong" by the vendors. You do not have to "worry" that switch model X is "compatible" with router/AP/HomePlug Y - as long as they "talk" ethenet, then they should be fine. Though I would stick to named brand (with a decent warranty) rather than generic grey imports. Etheret switches are so cheap (a few tens of GBP) for basic "unmanaged" "desktop" switches that you'd only be "saving" a few pounds on cheap rubbish.

The price difference between 10/100 and 10/100/1000 (AKA "gigabit") switches is so small, it's be best to buy the latter and save yourself the hassle of upgrading to something faster later. Buying "only" 10/100 switches is a false economy these days.

So, you might find a more reliable powerline solution, but if the incumbent is failing because your mains is crap, it could be the same or worse - without knowing why the incumbent is failing, we're just guessing a different set of kit might make a difference.

It might be that a Wi-FI solution works better, but no-one can predict it, you just have to suck and see which again is a gamble.

Of you could get the drill out an install "proper" cables ethernet links. But not everyone is able do that.

There's no silver bullets I'm afraid.
 

justabear

Member
There's no silver bullets I'm afraid.

Many thanks mickevh for both your considered response to the questions and the time taken to reply.

I will definitely take your advice on the Ethernet switches and go for the 10/100/1000 to avoid a false economy with the 10/100. Perhaps, if I run a switch from the existing Broadband Extenders that might relieve some of the demands of WIFI which is a bit patchy as discussed.

I am in the "everything in between" category with the home plug experience so far. It's not a total pain and I can live with it. It might be worth trying the discs out should a decent offer come along, on those. At least I will know then if it can be improved. It might also be worth upgrading the broadband extenders from the 500 to the 1000 set, should a decent offer come along. There are at least a couple of things to try as you suggest.

To my shame I don't even have a drill - I borrow a friends when I need it. However I do like the idea of having a wired connection throughout the home. It is definitely something to think about for the future.

Again thanks for advice which is really helpful and lots to think about before rushing into purchases.
 

mickevh

Distinguished Member
Getting as much as possible off Wi-Fi and onto wires (beit ethernet or poweline) is often a good thing as Wi-Fi is an "only one thing at a time can transmit" technology. The more would be transmitters you have, the more data they wish to send, the more competition (it's anything but "fair") there is for Wi-Fi "air time." Thusly, the more we can free up the Wi-Fi aiwaves, the better it is for the remaining Wi-Fi devices.

A slight wrinkle is that powerline has the same operating paradigm: Only one plug at a time can transmit across the mains circuit. So again, the more plugs you have, the more data they need to transmit, the more, er, "mains time" competition there is. (With poweline the "Master" plug moderates who's turn it is to transmit - I forget whether there's any "fairness" mechanisms in the protocols.)

Technically, each ethernet lobe is the same, it's just that they are (often) faster (as in higher capacity, called "bandwidth" in data networking jargon) and more reliable that the alternates.

Indeed, in the sort of data networks we use at home, there is always some point that is the "slowest" part the network. If one then "fixes" it, it simply moves the burden of being the slowest part somewhere else. The "game" is to design and build the infrastructure so that the slowest part is fast enough to meet our needs.

It's a bit like the road network; fixing the bottlenecks is a constant moveable feast. I live in the south of the UK near one of the busiest bits of the M25 motorway - 6 lanes wide per carriageway in places and often it's still not enough. But if we added even more lanes, it just move the choke point elsewhere.

Also, be sure to understand that the throughput of each technology at the application level (what you see copying a file, streaming, running a speed test, etc.) is not the same for each technology: So a 1000mbps ethernet, Wi-Fi and Powerline links would all "speed test" at different rates. It's a common mis-conception that the vendors are somehow misleading us that "this isn't as fast as advertised" but that's a mistaken interpretation of what the numbers mean. A certain percentage of the advertised "link rate" is utilised to just "make it work" in things like error correction and management chatter. There's a wet finger metric called "protocol efficiency" which describes such losses. Ethernet is pretty good at about 97% efficient, Wi-Fi is cited at around 55-75% (worse in poor signalling conditions) and Powerline is cited at about 45-55% (again worse in poor signalling conditions.)
 
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justabear

Member
Thanks and I can relate to the analogy of the road network and the moveable feast. You have a knack for describing the potentially complex in an accessible manner, which is most welcome. Again, lots to think about there in your helpful post.

I most definitely agree with that correcting the slowest part of the network can create a problem somewhere else on the chain. As a testament to this, I have an old telephone extension cable that snakes under the edge of the carpet from the master bedroom to the office that was used to access the internet, in the old days when Demon Internet was a thing. The amount of hours I spent on the telephone with support struggling to connect to the internet and resetting the Belkin router were fun times. What I have at the moment with the broadband extenders works much better and is indeed a blessing in comparison to the old setup.
 

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