Understanding Wireless Networks

Doc discusses elements of creating a wireless network for your home.
Published: Jan 5, 2006
Author: Michael E, Callahan

This question submitted by Fred Sauter, Michael Pascali, Vivian Turner, Anita Hoyer, Louis Alden and numerous others

As I noted at the beginning of the article on Ethernet networks, I've received many questions about networks. Quite frankly many of these questions asked about things that aren't even current technology. So I would caution you to check your sources when you do searches looking for information. Make sure you aren't reading an article on networks that was written in 1990. Why? Things have changed a lot since then.

On December 23rd I started to approach the world of networks with a general article called Understanding Home Networks.. This article is just a simple introduction to the world of networking. If you're new to computers and networks you may want to read that article before reading the other ones.

On December 30th I did the article entitledTell Me About... Ethernet Networks.. This article deals specifically with Ethernet networks and how they work. Today, we're going to look at wireless networking.

Wireless Networks

It seems like everywhere you go you hear people talking about "WiFi" and hot spots at the airport or the hotel. People are walking around in buildings with a little device looking for a signal. Connecting via wireless has become a big thing and it probably won't slow down anytime soon.

The primary advantage of wireless networking is that you don't have to run any wires. With an Ethernet you have to have cable running anyplace you want to put a computer, but not so with wireless. This makes it very easy to set up a wireless network in a home or small office. Wireless has a range of about 100 feet or so depending on what the signals have to travel through. The area where the wireless signal radiates from is the hot spot and hot spots are cropping up all over the place.

In very simple terms, a wireless network is really just a radio transmission from computer to computer. The primary difference between a wireless network and say a mobile radio is just that the wireless uses a higher frequency. That's what allows wireless networks to transmit data quickly and in large amounts. I could go into all of the intricacies of the radio signals, how the devices can switch what frequency they're on, and so on, but you don't really need to know that part.

Converting Your Computers To Wireless

In older desktop and laptop computers all you have to do to add wireless is to install a card. You'll often see references to 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g. These are all just different variations of wireless networking. Leave it to computer people, but the "b" version actually came first. Today, your best choice is to go with a card that supports 802.11g. This type of card works with all other wireless network equipment. You can find these cards at office supply stores, computer stores and even places like WalMart. Normally these wireless cards are PCMCIA cards that slide right into the PCMCIA slot on your laptop. Simple. Some cards will come with software so you'll also need to install that as well.

The process for a desktop computer is basically the same. Just buy a 802.11g wireless card for your desktop, and install it. These are generally PCI cards, but I've seen some that are adapters that connect to the computer with a USB cable. The cards for desktop computers have antennas, while those for laptops do not. You'll need to install a card for every desktop and laptop computer that you want on your network. One exception is newer laptops that come with wireless built right in.

Setting Up A Wireless Network

To begin setting up your wireless network you'll need a wireless router. These come with a variety of names, like "broadband router," "cable/DSL router" and so on. Your best bet is to explain to those at the store what you have and they can direct you to the right product. For example, if you have DSL, a cable/DSL router would be used to link all of your computers and give them all access to the Internet. The DSL modem connects into your router and allows you to share the connection.

If you already have a wired network you can easily switch all or some of your computers to wireless by using a Wireless Access Point. That's what I did in my office. Since I already had a number of desktop computers on a secure wired Ethernet, I decided to give my laptops wireless capability by adding an access point. The access point simply plugs into the router and shares the same Internet connection that is shared by the wired computers.

Most wireless equipment today will automatically recognize a wireless hot spot. Windows also has a function under wireless networking that lets you update the list of local wireless networks. You can have a wireless network that's either open or secure, so let me say just a bit about that.

Wireless Security

If you leave your wireless network open anyone within range can connect to it and use it. It's a matter of personal choice, but it's really very easy to make your wireless network secure!Wireless networks can use a type of encryption called WEP which stands for Wired Equivalent Privacy. There are different levels of encryption ranging from 64-bit to 128-bit. In general it's best to use the highest level of security

Once you activate WEP encryption a person outside your network would need to know the key in order to access your network. By using WEP you can be certain that only authorized people have access.

Summing It Up

A wireless network is extremely easy to set-up and deploy using todays hardware and software. It's easy to adapt your computers so they can use wireless or purchase new computers with wireless capability built right in. The popularity of wireless makes it available in hotels, airports, restaurants and many other public places. You can even purchase Palm and Pocket PC devices that are wireless. Whether you use a wired Ethernet or a wireless network, you'll find that a network can enhance your computer usage.

I'd like to thank Fred Sauter, Michael Pascali, Vivian Turner, Anita Hoyer, Louis Alden and numerous others for asking thisquestion.

If you have a question on any technology topic that you'd like someoneto tell you about you can submit it via e-mail by clicking HERE. You will not receive a reply, but all topics will be considered.

About Michael E, Callahan

Michael E. Callahan, known around the world by the trademarked name Dr. File Finder, is regarded as the world's leading expert on shareware. Dr. File Finder works with software programs and developers full-time, and in the average year he evaluates 10,000 programs. Since 1982 he has evaluated over 250,000 software and hardware products. Mr. Callahan began evaluating software online in 1982 and no one has been at it longer. He currently works doing online PR and marketing for software companies, and is the Senior Content Producer for Butterscotch.Com.

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