Wireless internet connections (also know as "WiFi hotspots") are everywhere--coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, airports, even my local tire repair place has one. Many high-speed internet service providers have wireless built right into their cable and DSL modems, and if yours doesn't you can always add your own wireless router. However, despite its almost universal popularity, wireless is not
always the best choice for many people. When clients ask me to set them up with a wireless connection, I first explain the pros and cons. Many of them choose a wired solution instead.
How it works
Just like your cordless phone talks to its base station, which is in turn plugged into your phone line, a wireless internet connection consists of:
- A wireless card that was either added to your computer or built in at the factory, which your computer uses to communicate with your wireless router.
- A wireless router, which is in turn plugged into your (or someone else's) high-speed internet connection.
Your computer's wireless card works like a cordless phone:
- It takes your internet requests ("fetch my new email," "send this email message," "load this web page," "download this file"), converts them into radio signals, and transmits them to your router.
- It receives radio signal responses from the router ("here's your new email," "here's that web page," etc.), translates them into digital, and passes them along to the appropriate program in your computer (email, web browser, etc.).
The router is like a cordless phone's base station:
- It receives analog radio transmissions from your computer, translates them into digital, and passes them to your high-speed modem, which in turn sends them out over the internet.
- It takes the digital information coming in from your internet connection, translates it into analog radio waves, and transmits it to your computer.
Since a router can talk to many devices (computers, network printers, Vonage phone adapter, etc.), it not only shares your internet connection among those devices, it also creates a network
among those devices.
How does my wireless computer find my wireless router?
Every wireless router has a name (or SSID, short for Service Set Identifier) that it usually broadcasts every few seconds ("Hello, my network name is ____"). When you tell your computer that you want to connect to a wireless network, it listens to all the wireless routers within range and then displays a list of their names. You have to know your router's name in order to choose it from the list.
Router names may only contain letters and numbers, are case-sensitive (i.e., "Sparky" is different from "sparky"), and are limited to 32 characters.
Many routers arrive with factory-set names corresponding to their brand name, e.g., "Linksys," "Netgear," etc. I always recommend changing such a generic name to something else, while also avoiding anything that identifies you (or your house or your family) so your neighbors won't know that this wireless network is yours.
Upside of wireless: Convenience
Wireless internet connections are very convenient. Your computer doesn't have to be "tethered" by a network wire, which means that:
Downside of wireless: Reduced speed
- If it's a laptop, you can probably take it almost anywhere around your home or office, even outside, and still use your internet connection.
- If it's a desktop computer, you can add a wireless card and also put it almost anywhere in your house. You aren't restricted to the room where the internet connection is located.
Since both your computer and your router have to convert digital information to analog radio signals and back again, your wireless internet connection will run more slowly than a wired connection.
It's possible that you may not notice much difference in speed over a wireless connection using email and simple web pages. However, if you're downloading large files, or sending or receiving sound or voice or video over the internet (e.g., with Skype, YouTube, or other streaming video applications), you've very
likely to experience major quality problems on a wireless connection, especially if your equipment uses the 802.11g protocol or older.
There are newer wireless routers that use the new 802.11n protocol to transmit more data per second, but your computer's wireless card also has to use this protocol to get this speed boost.
Downside of wireless: Distance and blockage
How far away from the router can your computer be and still be online? It depends. Wireless signals get weaker with distance. Weaker signal strength makes for slower connections.
I've been told that if you had your router and computer in an open field, they'd probably have a range of about 1,000 ft., but if you're in a house or a building, since every wall and floor absorbs some of the radio signal, your range drops to about 100 ft. or less. Wood and plaster absorb small amounts, but concrete, metal, and stone can completely block radio signals, so it not only depends on how the house was built, but on the furniture, appliances, and metal file cabinets in any given room, plus any aluminum siding on the outside of the house.
Downside of wireless: Interference
Consumer wireless routers currently use the 2.4Ghz radio frequency, which means that any other device also transmitting on that frequency can cause interference. This includes:
- 2.4Ghz cordless phones
- microwave ovens
- TV repeaters
- 2.4Ghz radio remote controls
- invisible dog fences
- cordless stereo speakers or headsets
I got rid of my 2.4Ghz cordless phone after I found that every time I made or received a call, all of my wireless computers immediately "fell off" the internet! I replaced it with an older 900Mhz cordless phone that uses a completely different frequency so it doesn't interfere at all. I could also have gotten a 5.8Ghz, but in my experience their range is worse. Even better, DECT 6.0 cordless phones transmit on 1.9Ghz and have good range as well.
Another interference problem is caused by the popularity of wireless internet itself. I had a client who moved from a house to an apartment building where many of her neighbors had already set up wireless routers. The airwaves were so saturated, her computer was unable to communicate with her wireless router only a couple of feet away!
Downside of wireless: Poor security is common
Would you talk on your cell phone out in public and loudly tell the other person your name, social security number, bank account number, or email password? You might be broadcasting all that and more over a wireless connection.
Most routers have options for increased security, but those options are usually off by default. If you activate your router's wireless security option to require a password to connect you'll probably keep your neighbors out, but the older protocols (WEP and TKIP) are vulnerable to well-known methods that permit someone within range of your router who has enough time and knowledge to decode your wireless password and gain access to your network. Wireless security experts tell me to use the newer WPA2 protocol with AES encryption and a difficult-to-guess password. However, both your router and your computer must support this protocol for it to work. My router and one of my computers already had this option, but I had to get a wireless card firmware update before my other computer could handle it.
This risk is even greater when you use someone else's wireless network, since you can't control their level of security. Many public WiFi hotspots (at coffee shops and stores) have no security at all.
Downside of wireless: What about my printer?
So, you've taken your laptop out onto the deck and are reading emails and surfing web pages out in the sunshine when you decide to print something. But you can't print, because you disconnected your printer's USB cable in order to roam around with your laptop!
One solution is to put off any printing until you're back at your desk and have reconnected your printer's USB cable.
However, if you have a network-capable printer, you can connect it to your wireless router, "add" it to your computer's list of printers, and then print to it over your wireless network. Many such printers can either connect to your router using a CAT5 cable (a.k.a. network cable) or using a wireless connection (which is more complicated to set up, and to fix if problems develop). I tend to recommend the simpler wired approach if at all possible.
I thought you were going to talk about another type of wireless
There are many other kinds of wireless equipment, including:
Where to go from here
- Mobile broadband, where you sign up for a special cell service plan and buy a special wireless card or adapter for your computer, which then connects to the internet over the cell phone system, giving you slow-to-moderate-speed internet access wherever you can get a cell phone signal.
- Cordless mice and keyboards, which run on batteries, transmit 27MHz radio signals to their receivers which plug into a USB port on your computer, and have a range of about 6 ft.
- Bluetooth devices (including cell phone headsets, mice, keyboards, printers, etc.), which also use 2.4Ghz with a range of about 30 ft., but they use a special frequency-hopping technology that manages to avoid interfering with wireless routers.
- Don't rush into setting up a wireless network (or permit someone else to put you on wireless) without considering all the pros and cons.
- One way to avoid wireless and give your computer wired internet access almost anywhere in your house is to use powerline adapters. I like the Netgear XE102; see http://www.kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2007_11_28.html#XE102.BLOCK for more information.
- If you do decide to go wireless, make sure your router's name doesn't identify you or your house, and choose the highest level of security you can, ideally the newer WPA2 protocol with AES encryption and a difficult-to-guess password.
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