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Your Home Network: Should You Go Wireless?

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Wireless networking offers some obvious convenience over its wired counterparts, such as Ethernet networks and those that work over the telephone or via electrical wiring in your house. However, wireless networking also has some drawbacks. It's a good idea to know a little about the pros and cons before you start your network.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

In this chapter...

  • Your Wireless Equipment's Range

  • Ad-hoc vs. Infrastructure

  • How Walls, Concrete, and Steel Affect Your Signal

  • Maximum Speeds vs. Real World Speeds

  • Getting the Most Out of Your Wireless Signal

  • 802.11a, 802.11b, or 802.11g?

Since wireless equipment works over radio waves, the signal sent can only travel over a limited distance. Unlike the powerful radio transmitters that broadcast the stations you listen to in your home and car, a wireless network radio can only broadcast a signal over a short distance indoors (and about twice as far outside, if there are fewer obstructions than inside). Again, when we speak of wireless networking generally, we're talking about Wi-Fi (802.11b) equipment, the most widely used wireless standard today. The more obstacles that get in the way—walls, brick, concrete, steel, and to a lesser extent, glass—the less distance your wireless network will be able to cover.

The software that comes with your wireless network adapter will show you the strength of your signal. Your software might look slightly different than the figures you see in this book, but they all work in a similar way: When you get farther away from another wireless network adapter or access point, the software will display decreased signal strength, and your data transfer rate will drop (see Figure 3.1).

03fig01.jpgFigure 3.1. Here you see the software for a wireless network adapter in close proximity to the access point. The signal strength shows 100 percent (or “excellent”).

The area over which a wireless network can broadcast, sometimes called its range, is a factor you need to consider when setting up your network. Your network's limited signal range can be a problem in a very large house.

You can work around this range in several ways. For example, you can add an access point to extend the range of your network. You can also mix wired and wireless networking hardware to expand the distance over which you can use your network. We'll discuss these options in this chapter.

Your Wireless Equipment's Range

Let's say that you have a wireless network adapter plugged into your laptop computer's PC Card port. As you walk around your home, increasing the distance between your wireless networking equipment, the speed that the network adapter can transfer data drops incrementally. This speed decrease is by design, allowing the wireless network adapter to maintain a reliable network connection, albeit slower than if the adapters were closer together (see Figure 3.2).

03fig02.jpgFigure 3.2. Your network's radio signal drops off as distance is increased. The indicator shows a transfer rate (labeled here as Tx rate) of just 2 megabits per second. Compare that to 11 megabits per second when the signal is at full strength.

The speed drops off at set rates, from a top speed of 11 megabits per second to 5.5, 2, and 1 megabit per second. If you move beyond 150 feet (or less depending on the number of obstructions in your home or office) the signal is too weak and the network connection is lost.

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