Going Wireless

Ahhh, freedom...one of the nice things about living in America is the ability to travel. In fact many businesspeople depend on this ability, constantly lugging a laptop to clients' sites, the conference room, home, perhaps the back porch...wait, the porch? Well, wouldn't it be nice to sit in the sun while catching up on your e-mail on a fine summer day? The current incarnations of wireless networking make this not only possible, but affordable.

In fact, wireless networking has become quite inexpensive, making it a great way to "wire" homes for networking or shared Internet access, and perhaps even some offices. Wireless network adapters are available for desktops as well as laptops, and are even found in other devices such as Internet routers and print servers. Wireless networking currently functions at a top speed of 11 Mbps (Megabits per second; one megabit is roughly one million bits). This is equivalent to the older 10Base-T style of office network, and far faster than your Internet connection. The maximum speed does drop as the distance increases, but users enjoy full speed up to about 160 feet indoors, and 800 feet outside.

The benefit to users? Simply bring a laptop into a conference room (even on a different floor) and still have access to the network or Internet. Go home and connect to the Internet automatically from any room in the house. Or, install a new print server in the hallway of your office without the expense of running new wiring.

How It Works

A typical setup would have an access point installed in a fixed location, typically connected to the company network or home Internet connection. An access point is essentially a wireless receiver that communicates with wireless devices. The access point functions like an antenna, yet provides a common point to connect to the physical network. Some models can share DSL or cable modem Internet connections, or function as a print server.

Workstations and laptops have a wireless network card in place of a regular network card. This card contains a small, enclosed antenna to communicate with access points and other computers.

Dueling Standards

As with most things in our computerized world, the engineers have all developed their own standards. Unfortunately most are named by number (being invented by engineers), which can be confusing at times. The most widely available today is called 802.11b, also known as Wi-Fi. This standard runs at 11 Mbps (as described above), using the 2.4 GHz frequency range. Notably, some cordless phones use this range, as do microwave ovens and other devices. Users near these devices may experience slower transfer speeds or occasional communication problems.

Recognizing that the Wi-Fi standard is limited by the busy frequency range, the same engineering group invented the newer 802.11a standard. Devices using 802.11a are just coming to market, although they are expected to be widely available later this year, likely at lower costs. 802.11a provides for speeds almost five times faster than its cousin, and also uses the relatively uncrowded 5 GHz frequency range for less interference from other devices. This standard can support high-bandwidth multimedia transmissions over the network without any performance degradation. Unfortunately 802.11a devices cannot communicate with 802.11b devices.

To counter that issue, the same group is developing an 802.11g standard, which promises compatibility with 802.11b devices while providing about twice the speed. Later proposals include 802.11e (providing higher speeds with bandwidth-management capabilities) and 802.11i (providing improved security and authentication). However these two proposals are not likely to be finalized in the near future.

One technology commonly mistaken for an alternative to the 802.11 suite of standards is Bluetooth, which has been a work in progress for quite a while now. Developed by an international consortium of companies such as Microsoft, Intel, 3Com, and Motorola, Bluetooth promises to connect a myriad of devices throughout the home and office. However, Bluetooth is designed to only connect two devices that are a few feet apart, to synchronize data, for example. Bluetooth also works at less than one tenth the speed of Wi-Fi. Bluetooth devices are becoming more available, with several devices due out this spring, but currently availability is limited as the standard is being

Security Concerns

Unfortunately the ease of use of wireless devices is also their Achilles heel. To simplify the issue a bit, the same technology that lets you instantly "jack in" from the porch allows someone in a passing car to find your network as they drive by. Although later standards promise to improve on this, currently users must be very careful to set up security precautions.

Once sufficient security is in place, however, wireless Ethernet can be (ahem) a breeze to use.

January 2002

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