BOOT CAMP 387 (26/07/05)

Wireless Networking, part 1


Several recent emails from readers seeking basic advice about wireless networking prompted me to refer back to a series of Boot Camp articles written two years ago. It was immediately apparent how much had changed in that short time so it is time for an update.


Back in 2003 wireless networking was still a relatively new concept, for home users at least, moreover the choice of equipment was quite limited. Since then there have been a number of significant developments, making it easier and a lot cheaper to set up a simple home or small office wireless network.


The key innovation is undoubtedly Windows XP; the earlier articles reflected the fact that most PC users were still using Windows 98 and getting a wireless network to work was frankly a chore that entailed a lot of messing around with configuration settings and nasty complicated things called protocols. XP takes the sting out of wireless networking and for most users it is simply a question of plugging in a couple of small boxes and with a few clicks of the mouse it’s ready to go. 


Wireless network hardware has changed out of all recognition, the world and his wife are now marketing affordable systems that are easy to set up and use but the real driving force behind the growth in the technology has been broadband. Many households and small businesses now have two or more computers; wireless networking allows users to share their fast Internet connection and resources such as a printers, exchange files and roam free with their laptops in the back garden or taking advantage of wireless ‘hotspots’ to surf the web and send and receive emails in hotels, cafes and airports.


We’ll begin this week with a brief overview of the core technology; in subsequent articles we’ll look at how to set up a typical system, and what to do when things go wrong. We will be concentrating on networking Windows XP computers, if you want to create a network using a mixture of XP and older versions of Windows I suggest that you read through these articles and then look at Boot Camps 281 -286, which you will find in the Connected Archive (see below for address).


Wireless networking is based on set of internationally agreed technical standards and the most widely used ones go under the generic name ‘Wi-Fi’. The Wi-Fi specifications define such things as the operating frequency of the radio link, data speeds, encryption and so on. There are several different flavours of Wi-Fi and new ones are coming on stream but the two that are of most interest to home and small business users are known as 802.11b and 802.11g. The former is one of the oldest but still the most popular systems and equipment tends to be a little cheaper, however 802.11g is gaining ground fast. It offers significantly higher data transfer speeds (up to 54 megabits per second compared with 11Mbs for 802.11b) and it is backwards compatible with 802.11b. For most home and small office applications 802.11b is fine but it makes sense, if setting up a new system from scratch, to opt for 802.11g and possibly avoid the need to upgrade later on.


Don’t worry too much about the jargon and you really don’t need to understand how it all works in order to use it. Suffice it to say a Wi-Fi network connection between two or more PCs is basically a cordless alternative to a traditional wired type local area network or ‘LAN’, and simply provides a two-way path for computer data to travel along.


The principle differences between a wired network and one that uses a Wi-Fi connection are range, speed and security. Networks cables can run from a few metres to several kilometres; Wi-Fi links are typically between 25 to 100 metres, depending on the surroundings. Data travels faster down wires -- up to 100Mbs on a ‘10/100 Ethernet’ cable -- and for some applications, such as streaming high quality video, Wi-Fi can find it a bit of a struggle (though faster wireless systems are in the pipeline) but for almost everything else, from swapping files to Internet browsing, it is more than adequate.


Security is a critical issue since a Wi-Fi connection can, in theory, be intercepted by any suitably equipped PC or laptop to gain access to files and the Internet link. To overcome this the Wi-Fi standard incorporates a number of encryption schemes, the most popular one being ‘WEP’. It’s not perfect and indeed anyone determined to do so, and with sufficient resources, can crack it, but for the majority of home users the highest levels of WEP security (usually 64 or 128-bit) provides a sufficient safeguard against hacking and other kinds of abuse. For those requiring a higher level of security other much more powerful wireless encryption systems are readily available.


Next Week -- Wireless networking, part 2





Public Wi-Fi access point



A set of rules for controlling the way data is sent over PC networks and the Internet



Wired Equivalent Privacy, 40 and 64-bit ‘key’ encryption systems used to secure data on wireless networks, theoretically providing the same level of security as a cabled network connection




It is worth knowing that on most Wi-Fi set-ups you can mix wireless and wired network connections. For example if two of the PCs in your network are physically close to one another they can be linked together by cable for faster data transfer speeds. PCs in other rooms, distant parts of the house or the garden can use a wireless link for greater freedom and flexibility. The point is there are no hard and fast rules and once your system is up and running you can easily reconfigure it to suit your needs and adapt to changes in you and your family or workplace’s pattern of use.

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