Broadband Internet

Sharing broadband across multiple PCs

There are a number of ways to share your broadband with multiple computers. These fall into two categories. The first is a line sharing option provided by the ISP. This requires additional outlets to be installed in your home or office for each PC. It is a simple solution that requires no additional configuration, but is currently only available with Telstra BigPond cable.

The second involves running a Local Area Network (LAN) in your home or office. It is important to note that while most ISPs will allow you to run a LAN from a single connection point on ADSL or cable services, they will not provide any support for the LAN, and recommend you consult a communications specialist to set it up for you. In some instances the ISP may be able to refer you to an appropriate consultant, but this will depend on the ISP. For example, Telstra will refer its ADSL customers wanting to establish a LAN to a professional third-party consultant, but Optus does not deal with LAN services at all.

The other issue with setting up your own LAN is providing each user with their own e-mail account. If you want to have multiple user accounts included in your broadband service but have only signed up as an individual user with your ISP, you may incur a fee for each additional user you introduce. For instance, Telstra ADSL customers who have signed up to the service as a single user initially, will have to pay extra setup and ongoing monthly fees for each user account they want to add on to their service. This means that if you want to have seven people hooked up on your LAN with e-mail addresses deriving from Telstra, you will need to pay an additional $77 per month ($11 per user account per month) on top of your monthly service charges to have the additional user accounts connected. However, other ISPs such as Optus, do not have this restriction on multiple user accounts. Optus will provide residential subscribers with as many as five e-mail accounts on its cable service free of charge.

If you are going to set up a LAN on your broadband service, be it cable or ADSL, there are three main ways of sharing the connection between multiple PCs.

Firstly, you can use a hardware router, which is arguably the best solution, although it is also the most expensive one. Router prices start at a couple of hundred dollars, and allow you to simply plug your modem into one side and your PCs into the other and you're away. They handle the logging-in, line sharing and security without the issues that plague most of the alternatives, which involve specific hardware and software configuration, as well as a dependency upon a single server PC.

DSL router Option two is to use a proxy server, which is a piece of software that runs on the PC that is connected to the modem. In addition to proxy software, you will need a network card and cable for each computer as well as a network hub. For cable, this requires that the server PC has two network cards -- one for the modem and one for the LAN. ADSL users have the additional option of plugging the modem directly into the uplink port on the hub (using a special crossover cable).

Once you have your hardware sorted, there are plenty of proxy server software packages available. Many of these are freeware (such as AnalogX at www.analogx.com), but most are inadequate if you want to do more than just surf the Web and read e-mail. Those that are suitable for using with other applications such as IRC, gaming, instant messaging, FTP and peer to peer networking will usually involve a fair amount of configuration and trial and error to get working properly. If you have an old, unused PC, it might be worth considering using it as a dedicated proxy server. Using software such as Smoothwall (www.smoothwall.org), you can quickly and easily configure it to run as a stand-alone proxy server without the need for a Windows licence (as it is Linux based) or any other cost, aside from a network card.

The benefit of using a proxy server is primarily the level of control you have over how PCs on your LAN connect to the Internet. The downside is that each Internet application on each client PC must be configured to use the proxy. If you are running Windows 95 or you want to keep your LAN secure and undetectable, then a proxy is probably the best way to share your connection. If you are running a later version of Windows, or Linux, or your PCs are going to be using Internet applications such as instant messaging and multiplayer games, then using Network Address Translation may be a better option for you.

Option three is to use Network Address Translation (NAT). This is commonly done using Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) built into Windows 98, ME, 2000 and XP. Linux users will need to configure ipchains or install something like freesco (www.freesco.org) to utilise connection sharing via NAT. This option is transparent to users on your network as it involves each computer being assigned an IP address by the ISP. So if your ISP doesn't allow you to use LANs, then this is not really an option. The benefit of NAT is that it requires almost no configuration at all and allows you to use all your PCs as if they were directly connected to the modem. As per the proxy server option, you will need a network card and cable for each computer as well as a network hub. You will also need an additional network card for the server PC unless you are using ADSL and choose to connect the modem to the hub with a crossover cable.

It is worth bearing in mind that of all the options available, the last two are limited by the fact that if the computer connected to the modem crashes or is shut down, the Internet connection will be unavailable. If you use a router or have multiple outlets installed, then all your PCs are online all the time, and none are dependent on the others working correctly.

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