To sum it up WiFi rocks! Don’t be afraid to give it a try at your home or office, as you’ll ooh and ahh every time you plop down in that Adirondack chair on your deck with your laptop or check your email while waiting for your delayed flight at the airport.

Don’t be afraid: Try WiFi

Peter Davis

To sum it up WiFi rocks! Don't be afraid to give it a try at your home or office, as you'll ooh and ahh every time you plop down in that Adirondack chair on your deck with your laptop or check your email while waiting for your delayed flight at the airport.

by Peter Davis


By now you've probably seen those commercials on the TV with a guy using a laptop on a diving board, in the middle of a field, etc. Intel is spending lots o' dollars to market it's new wireless computing "platform" called Centrino. If you're not a technology geek then those commercials can be confusing at best and misleading at worst. My wife was wondering how that would work and no, she didn't notice the fine print that pointed out the limitations and referred viewers to the Intel website for more details.

Let's get the technie stuff out of the way as quickly as possible shall we? One confusing thing about wireless is there are three different technical specifications that manufacturers use all based on standards from Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The most common standard used in homes, businesses and at "hotspots" is the IEEE 802.11b standard. Just FYI, the other two standards 802.11a and 802.11g offer faster networks speeds but are more costly to implement. In this article we'll be talking about setting up hardware that meets the  802.11 b standard.

If you haven't already seen articles about wireless networking here's how it works and what you need.  

  1. First you need a high speed internet connection. Since that's a relative term you need a cable modem or DSL line in your home or office or at larger business you probably already have a high speed network setup.
  2. Then you need a wireless access point (WAP) which is essentially a transmitter emitting a 2.4GHz signal. If 2.4 GHz sounds familiar it may be that your phone and microwave use that same frequency. No worries. Interference is pretty rare between these devices and the wireless network. Costs about $100.
  3. To connect your laptop, desktop computer or PDA to the network you need a "receiver" or a "wireless adapter card". Many companies manufacture this hardware including Microsoft, Cisco, Netgear and Toshiba. Costs about $50 per device.
  4. Now you have to install and configure all this stuff which can be rather challenging. You can try to do it yourself, have a "computer guy" you know do it or hire a consultant who typically charges $200 for an installation.

First lets review the "fine print" from the Intel commercial about wireless computing. In fact wireless networking or "WiFi" (wireless fidelity) has some limitations, but the conveniences and coolness outweigh the problems. Once you start using a wireless network on your laptop at home, work or at your local Starbucks, the ooh-aah factor takes over and you forget about the irritants of losing signal or the difficult installation.. The ability to roam around the house or office with your laptop in hand without worrying about plugging it in is soooo convenient and nifty.

OK fine print Don't try to move too far away from the wireless access point (WAP) or else you may lose your connection. Theoretically the limit is one mile or more outside (the WAP I purchased claimed range of only 1000 feet), but inside a home it can be less than 50 feet if you have a few walls between you and the WAP. I'd like to sit on my deck sometimes using my laptop, but the masonry wall between me and the WAP degrades the signal even more. So much so that I'm 20 feet away and barely get enough signal to use the network! Remember the Intel commercial with  the guy in the corn field or diving board, well there better be a WAP just outside of the picture or he won't be doing much other than editing a document on that computer.

More fine print Let's not forget to mention the major pain it is to setup wireless networks. I'm a fifteen year veteran of the IT field and have setup countless networks, servers, workstations, routers, and other hardware and software, but I was initially befuddled by the configuration of the WAP. Maybe it had to do with the brand of hardware I chose and the testosterone (I don't read directions or manuals) but even so configuring the WAP and the client computers (usually laptops with an external wireless card that costs about $50) was a challenge. I still haven't figured out how to turn on the security features (WEP encryption) that would make sure my wireless transmissions from the laptop couldn't be decoded by a passerby.

Speaking of wireless security, if you've already read some articles about WiFi (technically known as Ethernet 802.11) then you've seen dire warnings about the ability of hackers to capture your packets from the air and decode them. Some people seem to like to dwell on the negative don't they? As I mentioned above, the same limitations that affect you would affect them. At home we have a pretty good sized lot and the signal degrades quickly outside due to the masonry so the hacker would have to sit in my driveway to get the signal. I think I might notice that. As for the neighbor's if the signal isn't making it past my deck so it's not making it to their house either. Even if someone did manage to capture data if they want to read the majority of my mostly boring work, emails and web surfing, fine. My main concern comes when I use online banking or E-commerce websites or send sensitive emails to collogues. So in my paranoia I typically look outside the house to check for lurkers before I perform any of these tasks. Eventually I'm going to call tech support of the WAP manufacturer and get encryption setup so I can stop acting paranoid.

Now for the plus side and there's a lot of pluses with WiFi. It's convenient and fun and (oh yeah for you business types) it increases productivity. I think it's one of the few exciting things to happen in computers and networking in a good while.  If you have an older home like I do, you don't have to crawl around under the house running network cables to connect the laptop PC in the kitchen and the desktop in the den. I can also take the laptop outside on the deck or in the room of my choice. If I really want over stimulation I can web surf in the family room while watching the Orioles since there's not much need to give the O's my full attention this year anyway. 

At my workplace, I can move my "office" around to a number of locations with access points (cause let's be real all we do is read emails all day and use our computer anyway). The occasional phone call comes to my cell and thus I'm totally mobile, well not totally (range limitation) but wherever there's a wireless network which is a good number of places at the university where I'm employed. It's also handy to take my laptop to meetings to demo software, new systems, view websites, show powerpoints with hyperlinks etc. using the wireless connection. It's made meetings more productive and more fun.

For businesses, WiFi can help your employees be more productive in the office and on the road. Using your laptop more often and in more situations should make for better communication. In addition airports, hotels, coffeehouses are adding "wireless hotspots" installed by companies such as T-Mobile (Starbucks), Boingo (BWI) and Toshiba. All this network access should increase productivity. That's why networks exist in the first place, right?

To sum it up WiFi rocks! Don't be afraid to give it a try at your home or office, as you'll ooh and ahh every time you plop down in that Adirondack chair on your deck with your laptop or check your email while waiting for your delayed flight at the airport.

Peter Davis is a Supervisory Web/Database developer at the University of Maryland and a home technology consultant as founder of HomeTek (www.hometek-llc.com) and a Toshiba Hotspot operator (http://hotspot.toshiba.com and www.hometek-llc.com/hotspot/ ).

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