We Know: How Wireless Networking and Internet Access Work

How does wireless internet work?

Through a variety of radio technologies, wireless networks and wireless internet broadcast signals from modem to computer, much the same way your television remote works. For home wireless networking, it only works across a short range, usually no more than 100 feet. It's a great and convenient technology, but it does have hazards.

Types of Wireless Networking Technologies

Wireless technology is fairly new, but there are already several types. Bluetooth and the 802.11 (or wifi) protocols are most common today. You should be very careful when purchasing wireless technology to ensure that you get exactly the right protocol for your home network. Not all wireless devices are compatible.

  • 802.11a is short on range, but has great throughput and speed. It's outdated today, but you will still find devices for sale new and secondhand that support it.
  • 802.11b has excellent range, but not as much throughput or speed as 802.11a.
  • 802.11g has both great range and great throughput. It's fully compatible with b, so you can mix these two up.
  • Bluetooth is very compatible with most systems, but is in general only for short-range and temporary networking solutions, like shooting address lists from one PDA to another.
  • 802.11(pre)n

Wireless technology Speed Range Radio Spectrum Compatible with:
802.11a peaks at about 54 Mbps 75 feet 5.15-5.35 GHz Dual-band protocols may be able to run 802.11b as well, though a is not compatible.
802.11b 11 Mbps/second max; may be as low as 5 Mbps 100 feet 2.4 GHz 802.11g; it's a business standard, so you'll find a lot for it. Unfortunately, its radio spectrum is shared with cell phones, Bluetooth, and security radios, so you may get some interference.
802.11g 22 Mbps 100 feet 2.4 GHz, like 802.11b 802.11b; also susceptible to interference.
802.11(pre)n varies varies varies (pre)n technologies are still experimental, and are working to avoid the problems of other protocols while being backwardly compatible to the extent possible with the other technologies.
Bluetooth 500 Kbps 25 feet Infrared, like TV remotes Works with all other Bluetooth-enabled devices.

Setting Up Your Home Wireless Network

When you set up your wireless network, try to ensure that your server and primary internet access are in a place clear of heavy electrical current and plumbing, and that there are no thick walls or metal supports between it and the computers that will require access. If you can't do this, you may want to use antennas or wireless repeaters to extend the range of your server. Schedule plenty of time to set up the wireless network. Set up and test your desktop computers first, then your laptop computers everywhere you use them frequently, then your PDAs and other peripheral devices. The process of setting up a fairly large home network may take days, so be patient.

Troubleshooting Home Wireless Networks

It's not uncommon to have problems with your home wireless network when you start setting it up; this is why most people use professionals. But there are a few things you can try to fix yourself, if you know a little about computers.

  • Problem: Poor Range. Answer: Use an antenna on the computer having the problem. Try a small omnidirectional antenna, and experiment with where you put it. Or extend your range with a wireless repeater.
  • Problem: Walls in the way. Answer: Use a wireless repeater. You can place a repeater in corners where range reaches both the computer not accessing the wireless server and the wireless server; it works as a bridge between the two devices.
  • Problem: It just doesn't work. Answer: Is everything on all your wireless equipment set to the same values for SSID, wireless access point, channel, WEP encryption, mode? Also, the MAC addresses of wireless cards should be listed in your router's access list.

Hazards of Home Wireless Networking

Home wireless networks have a pretty good range when nothing blocks them. If you live in an apartment or a neighborhood with houses close together, your neighbor can take advantage of your wireless network if you don't have it set up properly. This may be a good thing; if you get along with your neighbor, you may want to share the network and split bills. But you may also be putting yourself at risk of having data intercepted and stolen if your neighbor is not so trustworthy.

To avoid this hazard, set up your wireless network using a secure server as the hub, and ensure that everyone in your household uses a separate password to access the system. You should also look up "APIPA" in MS Help in your server. This lets you assign an IP address to each computer that is allowed access to the server, and not let anyone else in. And it works with 802.11 protocol networks as well as Bluetooth technology. Just ensure that all your wireless devices are listed, or the server will not recognize them. If you use a router, however, this feature may get in your way.

Hazards of Public Wireless Networking

If you're fortunate enough to live in a city where you can access a public wireless networking system, that's great. But you should be aware that criminals always find a way to take advantage of technologies. If you're using a public wireless network, never send your personal data -- passwords, bank account numbers, etc. -- out, and this is including passwords your computer is set to automatically send. Malicious users nearby can hack into the network and intercept your data as it's going to the wireless server, or they may even be able to hijack the network with their own computer, acting as the server and keeping track of information as it flows through the network.

To protect yourself, always be alert when sending information out in public, and avoid doing any sensitive personal business using public networks.

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