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Different Kinds of Wireless Networks

If you've decided to network your computers wirelessly, you might first want to consider the available technologies. What's that, you say? There's more than one? There are, at this writing, five commonly used technologies for networking wirelessly, and you might see any or all at your local computer store.

All the technologies work similarly. Each broadcasts a radio signal that can travel a set distance, through walls and other obstructions. The main differences are in speed, because each of the protocols have a maximum (best-case scenario) range of about 300 feet, over which they broadcast a signal to your computers.

As you start shopping around for wireless network equipment, you'll come across some new jargon. None of it is wildly complicated, you just need to know the lingo. Let's translate:

  • IEEE 802.11. This protocol is one of several wireless LAN standards from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). 802.11 transfers data at 2 megabits per second (mbps), but you're less likely to run into it, than 802.11b, which is more widely used (and faster).

  • IEEE 802.11b. This is the wireless technology that has the widest current acceptances. Despite being competitively priced, 802.11b moves data much faster than other common wireless networking protocols, at a maximum of 11mbps.

  • IEEE 802.11a. This protocol operates at a very fast 24mbps (and potentially up to 54mbps) but is not yet widely available. 802.11a operates in the cleaner, less-crowded 5GHz band.

  • OpenAir. This protocol transfers data at 1.6mbps and operates in the 2.4GHz band.

  • HomeRF. This protocol transfers data at 1.6mbps. Like 802.11a and OpenAir, this wireless networking technology transmits in the 2.4GHz range. HomeRF is often cited for its ability to broadcast both voice and data.

Watch Out!

Wireless Networks operate in the 2.4GHz range and can be disrupted by other electronics that use the same range. Cordless phones and microwaves, for example, can cause interruptions over a wireless network.

Soup to Nuts: Wireless Network Hardware

To get started, you need network cards for each computer you want to connect. You can also purchase an access point, which connects the wireless network to an existing wired network. When speaking of wireless networks, I concentrate on 802.11b technology because it's speedy enough for most Web surfing needs, reasonably priced, and the most prevalent of the wireless networking technologies.

Well-Connected Words

An access point is a wireless networking device lets you tie a wireless network into a wired network. An access point communicates with the wireless networking cards you install in each computer in a network.

The wireless access point can also include a router, which enables you to connect a number of different computers to the same Internet connection. In the case of the Apple AirPort, for instance (an 802.11b device), several computers can share the included 56kbps modem. You can also use the AirPort to share a cable or DSL Internet connection among all the computers in a home or office.

After you have a wireless access point, you can start adding computers to the network. To do this, you install an 802.11b device to each computer that you want to add to the network.

The device could plug into the USB port on a computer, or it might be a PC Card that slides into the PC Card port on a computer. You can also buy a PCI card that you insert into a desktop computer, and then slide the 802.11b PC Card into that.

In the making-your-life-easier department, many new laptops offer wireless home networking gear as an option when you buy.

In the end, making the decision to go wireless has much to do with determining what equipment is right for you. If your office is fairly small, an Ethernet network is the inexpensive, if less futuristic, choice. If wiring an office will take too long or is too unsightly, a wireless network might make more sense.

Bet You Didn't Know

By 2003, 1.5 million homes will use wireless networking technology, according to research firm The Yankee Group.

Check, Please: Wireless Network Expenses

Now, for the bill. As we mentioned, wireless networks can be a little pricey. By the time you read this book, costs will undoubtedly have dropped. But wireless networks, per machine, always cost more than wired networks, because more sophisticated equipment is required.

As of this writing, setting up an 802.11b wireless network runs you about $100 per PC, whereas Ethernet cards typically cost around $20. Not so bad in a home office but hard to justify in a small-to-medium businesses with tight budgets.

Synch Up

Both HomeRF and Wi-Fi are working on speedier versions of their networking protocols. HomeRF will soon transmit data at 10mbps (up from 1.6mpbs) in its second version. Wi-Fi is looking to jump ahead of its competitor, by going to 54mbps in a future version. But for now, 802.11b is the most popular, and fastest, wireless networking standard.

Setting Up a Wireless Network

Now it's time to take a look at the overall steps you take when setting up a wireless network. Keep in mind that a wired network provides less flexibility than a wireless network. But with a wireless network, you need to carefully consider where you're placing your computers. You lose speed as components are placed farther from each other.

Here are the basic steps for installing a wireless network, connected to a broadband Internet connection:

  1. Plug a network access point into an Ethernet hub or router (which allows several computers to access the Internet).

  2. Plug a cable or DSL modem into the hub or router.

  3. Install a wireless network card into each computer that needs to be connected.

  4. Install the software that comes with your hardware.

  5. Test your network.

The Linksys wireless access point (see Figure 3.4) includes a router and print server. The router allows multiple computers to access the same Internet connection. The print server lets the wirelessly networked computers share a printer.

Figure 3.4 The Linksys wireless access point.

So now you know the basic steps for setting up a wireless network. Of course, you need to give some thought to which vendor to purchase from, and you need to do some shopping around for the best price.

In Chapter 13, "Starting a Wireless Network," we spend more time delving into the wonderful world of wireless networks, trying to head off some potential installation hang-ups, and giving you some hands-on advice so that you can get going on your own. And that's what wireless technology is all about, right? Increased freedom, whether it's freedom from cables or the smug looks of your more computer literate friends.

Bet You Didn't Know

You can find 802.11b networks at hotels and airports, where you can rent access to broadband Internet access. Also getting into the action is coffee chain Starbucks, which plans to offer wireless access in some of its franchises. College campuses are taking advantage of wireless network technology, and some are offering access wherever students roam on school grounds. In spring of 2001, Dartmouth installed a campus-wide 802.11b network with access points placed strategically so students and faculty can access the network or use the Internet wirelessly.

The Least You Need to Know

  • For e-mail on the road, consider a two-way pager. For text-based Web surfing, consider a PDA or mobile phone. For e-mail and full-featured Web surfing, a laptop or PDA is your best bet.

  • Of the five available wireless technologies, 802.11b currently offers the most bang for the buck. Future versions of the protocol Home RF will give 802.11b, sometimes called Wi-Fi, a run for its money.

  • To set up a wireless network that connects to the Internet, you need a network access point; a PCI, USB, or PC Card wireless adapter for each computer you want to connect; and an (inexpensive) Ethernet hub.

  • Wireless networks cost more than inexpensive Ethernet (wired) networks.

  • A wired network provides less flexibility than a wireless network. But with a wireless network, you need to carefully consider where you're placing your computers-you lose speed as components are placed farther from each other.

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