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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Working on Wireless PC Networking Basics

It's true that shouting at someone is a type of wireless technology. But shouting at a computer does little or no good. Wires virtually guarantee that a signal gets through. But, wireless? If you understand the basics of computer networking, wireless networking isn't all that different. You have some terms to know, standards to obey, and various ritual dances and chants.

Follow the standard

Computers would just go nuts without standards. For networking, the standard is Ethernet. For wireless networking, the standard is 802.11, which is properly pronounced, "eight oh two dot eleven," or, to save time you can omit the dot: "Eight oh two eleven."

At this point, there are two versions of the 802.11 standard, called B and G and written as 802.11b and 802.11g, respectively. The 802.11b standard is older and more common. The 802.11g standard is newer and faster and becoming more common every day.

What happened to 802.11a? Well, you may see that standard listed on some wireless networking adapters, but it's really an antique now. Letters C through F also existed at one time, but they never caught on. You're left with only 802.11b and 802.11g.

So what's the point?

The point is — and this is important — that for all your wireless networking hardware to work, it must all be on the same standard. For example, if the wireless networking adapter on all your computers, laptops, and routers is 802.11b, you're okay. If they all use 802.11g, you're still okay. But, if they mix it up between 802.11b and 802.11g, you're screwed.

  • Some wireless networking adapters cover both popular standards. This is often specified as 802.11b/g. The adapter costs more, but you get an adapter that works in just about any wireless networking situation.

  • The multiple standard wireless adapters may also be compatible with the old 802.11a standard, in which case they're labeled as 802.11 a/b/g.

  • There are also 802.11h and 802.11i standards, though they're not commonly implemented or available as wireless networking adapters.

Wireless networking requires its own wireless NIC, or network information card. This card is either an expansion card you add to your PC's motherboard or a special adapter that plugs into the USB port.

Behold, the wireless NIC

The wireless networking information card (NIC), or network adapter, adheres to one or more of the wireless networking standards, either 802.11b or 802.11g, or both. As long as that standard matches all the other computers and wireless networking apparatuses in your home or office, you're set!

  • Consider getting a wireless adapter with an external antenna. For some reason, the antenna makes picking up the wireless signal all the more easier — especially if the antenna is directional (can be moved).

  • Laptops equipped with built-in wireless networking rarely have an external antenna; the antenna is there — it's just inside the laptop's case.

The wireless network setup

Setting up a wireless network is done just like setting up a wired computer network. Each computer must be equipped with a wireless networking adapter, and all adapters must support or use the same standard, either 802.11b or 802.11g.

At the center of the network is a wireless hub, or router, also known as a base station. It serves the same function as a hub does in a wired network: The base station is responsible for receiving the wireless transmissions and sending them on to the other computers in the network.

A wireless network setup looks very much like a wire-based network, mostly because the only real difference is the lack of wires. Note that most wireless hubs or routers have the ability to let you connect wire-based networks as well, so you can share your network between existing wired connections and wireless ones.

To connect broadband Internet to your wireless network, simply plug the broadband modem into the wireless router. Most routers come with a connection specifically designed for the broadband modem, so making this addition is a cinch.

You'll also need to make the connection on the software side.

Setting up the base station

The wireless base station requires a little more setup than a wired base station. Here are some things you may want to configure on the base station, per the instructions that came with it and using the base station's controlling program installed on your PC:

  • Set a Service Set Identifier, or SSID, for your wireless network. This is the name by which the wireless network is known.

  • You have the option of making the SSID name visible or invisible. If security is an issue, make the name invisible. That way, the base station doesn't broadcast the name, and only computers that know the name can connect to the wireless network.

  • Set the encryption for the network, known as the WEP, or Wired Equivalent Privacy. Make sure that you note the password! It's a long string of numbers and letters, and you must enter it exactly to access the network.

  • You may hear or read that the password is optional. It's not. Don't compromise your network by omitting the password. In fact, Windows XP may not even connect to a wireless network that lacks a password.

  • Optionally, configure the base station to allow connections only from known computers. You specify this by listing the MAC address of the wireless Ethernet adapter in each PC.

  • Tell the wireless router to provide IP addresses dynamically for all computers on the network. This is also known as DHCP.

  • If the base station offers firewall abilities, enable them.

The most important pieces of information you need are the wireless network's SSID or name and the long, cryptic password you need in order to access the network. Write those things down and keep them in a safe place.

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