Going wireless

  • T.C. Seow (PC Advisor)
  • 29 September, 2003 09:53

Imagine accessing the Internet from anywhere you like at home, without a network cable dangling from your notebook computer. The thought is tempting, as anyone who has to put up with messy cables extending from his or her work table will attest. For most of us, going wireless will be an added advantage but how and what to do to be wire-free are things you'll need to know.

In theory, wireless networking is easy-install a wireless network adapter in each computer, notebook or peripheral and you're ready for the wireless world. The common wireless standard is IEEE 802.11b, which enables data to be transmitted at up to 11M bits per second ( bps), good enough for most purposes.

Wi-Fi, short for Wireless Fidelity, is a user-friendly name for devices that have been certified by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance to conform to IEEE 802.11b. The standard currently provides access to Ethernet networks such as a corporate LAN or the Internet. At 11M bps, home Internet surfing will not suffer any speed loss, as broadband access at home maxes out either at 512K bps via ADSL or 3M bps via cable modem. However, real world performance usually falls short of the claimed specifications caused by a combination of factors such as the distance from an access point, frequency interference or incorrect settings.

To get the best performance out of a wireless network, here's the general rule: the farther away you are from a wireless access point (and the greater the number of solid objects there are in between), the slower the connection will be. That's the reason why you must choose a location properly and configure your wireless setup so that you get the best possible performance, range and reliability.

To optimize your network's speed and range, you should position your wireless access point a few feet above the floor and away from large metal objects or appliances such as a refrigerator. Place the access point as close to where you'd most likely be working wirelessly, and maintain a line of sight to ensure maximum connection speed. In most apartments, this may not be possible as one access point is shared between multiple rooms, especially if the access point is connected to a cable modem or ADSL modem.

Don't worry about areas with no coverage if people aren't likely to use a computer there. Once the wireless network is up and running, sometimes even slight changes in your wireless network card's position (e.g. when you move your laptop from one place to another) can dramatically improve throughput or even re-establish a dropped connection.

Wi-Fi works in the 2.4GHz radio frequency spectrum, which is shared by plenty of other devices like microwave ovens, cordless phones, power lines, and Bluetooth devices. As such, interference may occur in some instances. To solve the problem, experiment with Wi-Fi channels-especially if you discover that your neighbors are using the same channel for their networks. The 802.11b band is divided into 11 channels, each one being 22MHz wide. Depending on the manufacturer, you can easily choose an appropriate channel for your 802.11b network so that it doesn't interfere with other similar networks.

Performance, range, and reliability in wireless networking all depend on the quality of the signal. The cheapest way to ensure a good signal is to keep the antenna of the access point vertical at all times. Apart from this, you can also add an external antenna to your access point to boost signal strength.

Wireless networking is exhilaratingly liberating, as someone put it, as you no longer need to be at a specific place to enjoy Web surfing or checking out e-mail accounts. And with the ease of setting up such wireless network, it becomes extremely easy to just plug in, turn on and forget about it. However, this is not recommended, if you're concerned about security.

While testing a Centrino-based notebook computer in the office, we managed to log on to an external wireless network. We couldn't tell where exactly the wireless LAN was physically, but at one end of the office, we managed to enjoy bandwidths of up to 24M bps. That's considered a pretty good connection, and our Web surfing trials proved just that. There were no passwords to use to get connected, and happily, we continued to surf wirelessly -- at someone else's expense -- for almost two hours before the network was shut down.

What does all this mean? Just one word: security. The problem with Wi-Fi is that, it's not secured (or password protected) right out of the box. You have to turn on password protection initially before you can keep off unauthorized network users. Whether it is WEP of WPA, it's best to only open up your network to people you know, and keep a sharp eye on your network monitor.

Many people are surprised to find out that the default security setting for wireless networks is often no security at all. The danger of course is the possibility that hostile hackers or freeloaders might take advantage of your network to gain free access to the Internet. Unfortunately, there's no perfect security solution yet, although there is now a new standard called WPA that overcomes the problems with WEP.

At the very least, turn on password verification in your network's Security Set Identifier (SSID), which every wireless device on your network uses to log in. Most wireless setup software makes changing the SSID easy. You should also turn on WEP (Wireless Equivalent Privacy), the data privacy mechanism used for wireless networking. Almost all wireless networking devices support 128-bit WEP, which is more secure than 64-bit WEP. Although WEP can still be hacked easily by experts, consider WEP as a deterrent rather than a barrier to hacking. Until WPA arrives, you may have to consciously keep an eye on your wireless network to ensure no intruders are taking advantage of it.

But don't let this talk about security discourage you from setting up a wireless network. More exciting now is the advent of IEEE 802.11g products, capable of connecting at speeds of up to 54M bps, and working within the range of 300 feet (about 100m). The 802.11g standard has just been ratified, and already, vendors like SMC, Linksys and D-Link have introduced such products.

Apple Macintosh users have not been left out in the cold. In fact, Apple became the leader of the pack when it first introduced its AirPort 802.11b wireless adapter cards and access points two years ago. These products have been upgraded recently to AirPort Extreme, complying with the new IEEE 802.11g standard.

While compatibility issues remain for the use of wireless network cards meant for the PC platform for the Mac, Apple's AirPort and AirPort Extreme products can co-exist within wireless networks set up in a PC environment. Mac users can enjoy Net surfing at wireless hotspots too, so long as they have the right passwords and accounts.

We tested the 802.11g protocol by installing an SMC Barricade G 2.4GHz 54M bps Wireless Cable/DSL Broadband Router in the office and an SMC EZ Connect G 2.4GHz 54M bps Wireless CardBus Adapter in a BenQ Joybook 8000; and we had no problems connecting to the office network. Within close range (5m or less), the signal strength was strong -- the notebook indicated full signal strength of 54M bps. Internet surfing and accessing our office e-mail was a breeze. However, when we moved beyond the 10m perimeter, connection speed dropped to 24M bps, probably due to the fact that the wireless access point was not elevated beyond the cubicle partitions. Once adjusted, we could attain full 54M bps speeds even from the farthest corner of our office.

Wireless networking no doubt brings some obvious benefits, despite its lack of security implementation compared to wired networks. But as we become more mobile, wireless networking may soon become a part of our daily lives-truly enabling us to work anywhere and at any time.