'Tis the season for visitors to slow down your network. Many of us will host families and friends in our homes over the Christmas period, and your guests are more than likely to bring with them an assortment of devices and gadgets that connect to the Internet.
This means sharing your router's Internet connection which, in turn, could cause a serious slowdown of your home network's bandwidth and throughput. Not to mention the fact that the more devices and users you have on your network, the more potential security breaches you introduce.
There are several steps you can take to prepare your home network for the Xmas holidays, and to that end, here are ten tips to ensure you keep your network running optimally and securely.
Many routers support guest networking, which creates an additional SSID for guests to access your router and use your Internet connection. What's great about creating a guest network is that any resources you share on your network, such as folders or printers, are not accessible to those connected to the guest SSID.
To enable guest networking, you will need to connect to your router's management interface. This is done by opening a browser in a device connected to the router, and typing in the default IP address of the router. Don't know what that is? From a Windows machine, open the command prompt by typing cmd in the search bar on the desktop (for Windows 8, you can just start typing cmd in the Start screen). At the command prompt, type ipconfig. The numbers to the right of the Default Gateway, for most home users, is the IP address of your router.
Once you enter the IP address as the URL in a browser, most routers will prompt for login. You will need the admin username and password to access the router's interface.
If you don't know or can't find the IP address and admin account username and password, you can usually find out the default settings with a Google search or by contacting your router's manufacturer. You may need to reset the router back to factory settings.
When you are in the interface, you want to look for the Guest Networking settings. These settings can vary in location from router to router, but typically, they are found under the Wireless settings in the interface or in a dedicated Guest Network section (as seen in the image below).
You will need to name your guest network. For dual-band routers, you will need to have an SSID for the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz band, if you want visitors to be able to connect to both bands. Most routers will create a guest SSID name by default once you enable guest networking (usually appending the word "guest" to the SSIDs you have already created). For example, if you regularly connect your wireless devices to your home wireless network that is named "my_network" the guest network's SSID could be "my_network_guest."
Ensure that you set WPA2 security for any guest networks you create, and use a strong passphrase. For help creating good, solid passwords, check out our article on making sure your passwords are up to scratch.
All that's left to do then is to tell your guests which SSID and password to use when they want to connect to your network. For a really cool way to allow your guests to automate their connection, you can set up QR codes with the router's SSID and passphase embedded, using a QR code generator like this one for Android devices.
Password protect network resources
Those of you with network resources such as shared folders, printers, or servers may want to either un-share or limit sharing on objects such as folders, or at the very least, protect resources with passwords. In Windows, you can add a password to a shared folder by going into the Network and Sharing Centre and then into Advanced Sharing settings. Expand the "All Network" option and click the radio button next to "Turn on password protected sharing." Enabling this setting will mean that anyone without a username and password for file and folder access will be unable to access your folders, even if they are shared.
Create guest accounts on devices others may use
If you envision guests using your personal devices, then you'll want to do some housekeeping on them. For laptops and desktops, it's a good idea to create guest accounts, especially ones without administrator permissions for the machine. In Windows, you can easily create a guest account by going into Control Panel, then User Accounts, and then select Create a New Account.
By the way, if you tend to store passwords and there is a chance your Xmas visitors will use one of your machines, you may want to delete stored passwords or use a password management app like LastPass, which stores your passwords in the cloud.
Oh, and to save any potentially embarrassing moments if you happen to peruse, um, questionable sites, clear the caches of any browsers on the machines.
Create two SSIDs for each band on dual-band routers
It's surprising how many people have dual-band routers and don't utilise both bands. Newer dual-band routers operate both the 2.4GHz band and 5GHz band simultaneously. This means you can create two separate networks for each band and choose which devices to connect with each.
The 2.4GHz band is not as robust as the 5GHz band, but it has better range. Connect devices that are just used for web browsing, or perusing social media, to this band. Reserve the 5GHz band for devices that are involved in heavier activities such as online gaming, VoIP, Skype, and video streaming.
You want to give the SSIDs for each bands different names so you know which device is connecting to which band. So, if your 2.4GHz SSID is "my_network," you can name the 5GHz network "my_network_5." You can edit the SSID in the wireless settings in your router's management interface.
Enable QoS on your router
Quality-of-Service (QoS) is a feature which is carried by almost all routers. QoS is used to prioritise different types of data traffic. In most routers, there are pre-configured services and applications that you can select to give high, medium, or low traffic priority. In other routers, you may have to set QoS rules manually. Check the instruction manual or the router manufacturer's support pages/forums.
If you plan on watching movies over the Internet with your guests, and don't want the kids' online gaming interfering with movie streaming, many routers will allow you to set high priority with apps such as Netflix, and you can give gaming traffic a lower priority. Or, if you and loved ones plan to use a lot of Skype, you can set Skype as a high priority (if the router has Skype, Netflix and other apps already defined in the settings).
QoS is enabled in the router's management interface, but settings vary from router to router. In the image below, I enabled QoS and other associated settings that can help enhance performance including WMM (Wi-Fi Multimedia) and Bandwidth Control.
Update router firmware
In anticipation of the extra devices and users which will be on your home network, it's a good idea to make sure your router's firmware is up-to-date. Firmware updates are performed within the router's interface.
With newer routers, you can usually click a button in the interface and the router will check the manufacturer's website for the latest software.
With dated routers, you usually need to go to the vendor's site, download the firmware, and then go into the router's management interface to browse to the file and apply the update.
Enable MAC filtering
Let's say you are not feeling bandwidth magnanimous and you actually want to limit or restrict guests from hopping on your home network. You will want to enable MAC filtering, a feature supported by most routers that will deny or allow access to your network by the MAC addresses you specify. Every device has a unique MAC address.
If you only want your devices and no one else's to hop on your network, set MAC filtering to only grant access to your devices' MAC addresses. Some routers will also allow you to grant network/Internet access by IP address as well.
Tweak DHCP settings
Routers use DHCP as a means of assigning IP addresses automatically to any devices that connect to the network. By default, routers are typically configured to assign about 100 IP addresses. One way to restrict the number of devices that can connect to your network is to reduce the DHCP client range. In the below image, I have allowed DHCP to only assign eleven IP addresses:
Enable parental controls
Routers are increasingly bundling parental control software or cloud services into the router's management interface. If you expect little guys as Xmas guests, and ones who may spend time on your network and computer, it may be a good idea to poke around your router settings to see if there are any built-in parental controls.
Parental controls will usually let you block Internet content by category (such as adult sites, or gambling sites) and you can also usually block specific URLs.
For more router security tips, see our 10 tips to help secure your wireless network. We've also got a guide to buying the best wireless router for those planning on buying themselves a new router for Christmas.