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Beginners Guides: Wireless home networking

Getting started with wireless? We have info you can't afford to miss Version 1.2.0
As everyone knows, Wireless networking is hot. Or at least the idea of it is... Wireless networks abound in coffee franchises, Colleges and even McDonalds (in theory). And why not? It's an inherently desirable idea. No wires, minimal setup, as we said, why not ? Well, price used to be the reason, but now driving this boom is the falling price of basic wireless networking equipment. The premium over conventional wired networks has dropped to a point where wireless is a valid option for most home networks, not just businesses and educational institutions. So let's look into what is involved in making your home network wireless. This article will cover purchasing and setting up home wireless equipment, look at the available standards for wireless networking, and cover some basic security guidelines. If you have already set up a conventional home network, jump right in. Otherwise you may wish to read the PCSTATS Guide to basic home networking to get a better idea of the basics of networking computers. This article assumes a few things: That you have two or more computers with Windows operating systems, a basic knowledge of computer terms, and an understanding of what networking computers together implies. To get your wireless network off the ground, you will need: 1. A wireless router (an access-point can be used instead, but for a home network, purchasing a wireless router is recommended for the added bonus of Internet sharing and security. Also, home wireless routers tend to be cheaper than access points, since the latter are primarily marketed to businesses.)

2. One wireless network adaptor for each computer or device that you wish to connect to the router/access point. When it comes to purchasing for your wireless networking equipment, it pays to shop around. The majority of wireless equipment is produced by well-known companies, such as DLink, Cisco, SMC or others and available only as a retail box item with a retail warranty.

Generally this would mean that the best place to purchase would be at a major electronics retailer, but since wireless networking has become so popular, even the smaller independent computer stores stock a variety of wireless networking gear. These smaller stores do not expect anything like the kind of profit margins that the large retailers do, so you'll probably find better prices from them. Given that most items will carry a manufacturers warranty and not a store warranty anyhow, you can save a significant amount of money.

This SMC wireless router is an example of what could be used. Some wireless routers only have one antenna, but we find two preferable. You can read PCSTATS' review of this equipment here.

Two examples of wireless PCI network adaptors. The SMC 802.11b adaptor to the left is simply a wireless PCMCIA card in a PCI adaptor. Whereas the TrendNet wireless adaptor to the right is more integrated and features a removable antenna. When it comes to signal strengths, the two types of wireless adaptors should be fairly even, but a larger antenna can be attached to the TrendNet model to give it an advantage.

Easy enough, but if you need a few ideas of what to consider, PCSTATS' 802.11b Wireless LAN Networking Roundup is a little dated, but a good place to begin if you're unfamiliar what kind of features are available in wireless access points and routers... after all, speeds change but WiFi features have remained pretty similar. Now, let's get started.

Selecting the Right Wireless Networking Gear As for what to purchase for a home network or small business environment, evaluate what you really need. Given a choice between purchasing a wireless router (more commonly available) and an access point (does not incorporate a firewall or internet sharing), the router is recommended, since it has a usefulness that goes beyond just connecting your wireless devices. If possible, purchase a wireless router that has wired ports on it as well for added flexibility. When buying wireless network adaptors for your computers, consider which computers in your home or business you actually need to be wireless. To put this in perspective, consider that A wireless PCI network adaptor for a desktop computer costs roughly 10-12x as much as a regular 10/100 wired network adaptor, which your computer probably came with anyhow. USB wireless adaptors are slightly cheaper, but still not as affordable as the adaptors for laptops (if wireless isn't already built in) Often they are more complicated to configure with some operating systems, and USB devices can add to system load. How often do you plan to move your desktops? A good rule for this is to consider where you are going to position your router/access point, then figure out if you can easily connect any of your desktops to i t via cable. For laptops and mobile PCs, obviously you are going to require wireless adaptors, and the good thing is that they are actually less expensive than their desktop equivalents, due to demand. It's simpler, of course, to purchase a wireless adaptor for every computer in your household and leave cables behind completely, but for every two desktop wireless adaptors you buy, you will close to double the price of your hardware, so it is worth thinking about the other options. In closing, it is possible to configure computers with wireless adaptors to communicate with other wireless adaptors without a router or access-point, using ad-hoc, or peer-to-peer mode, but this configuration complicates gaining access to the rest of your network resources, and i s not covered in this article. Wireless Data Transmission Standards There are currently three major wireless data standards used in contemporary devices. 802.11b, also known as Wi-Fi, is currently the dominant method of transferring wireless data. The vast majority of wireless networking components conform to this standard, and its adequate range and performance, coupled with the cheapness and availability of components, has been the driving force behind the wireless boom.

Current 802.11 Wireless Standards The standard most used goes by 802.11b, and it uses the 2.4GHz radi o spectrum to transmit data at a maximum rate of 11Mbps. Actual data transfer rates tend to be around 4-6Mbps. Realistic range for 802.11b devices in an urban environment is between 70 and 150 feet. Although no where near as fast as wired 100Mbps Ethernet, 802.11b still has more than enough bandwidth to enable high-speed internet access, games and small to medium size file transfers, and is currently the best choice for a home network. 802.11b's one major disadvantage is in the way it handles the channels it uses to connect devices within the 2.4GHz spectrum. The standard al lows for a maximum of only three distinct channels, manually configured on the access point. Each access point will use one channel at a time to service all clients, sharing the bandwidth between them. Problems arise with this when you have more than three wireless access-points within each other's range. When multiple access points are attempting to service clients using the same channels, considerable signal interference will occur. As wireless networks become more common, this issue will become a more pressing problem. 802.11B networks are also subject to some interference from common electronic devices such as cordless phones and microwaves, which may use the 2.4GHz spectrum. 802.11a uses the 5GHz radio spectrum, and is capable of transfer rates up to a maximum of 54Mbps, though some manufacturers have improved on this using proprietary modes. Range is about equal to that of 802.11b. The major advantage of 802.11a is in how it handles signaling. Besides the fact that is uses the 5GHz spectrum, and is thus not subject to interference by the variety of common electronic devices which share the 2.4GHz range. It also has 8 distinct channels available, compared to the 3 that 802.11b can use. Thi s makes configuring large wireless networks much easier. Drawbacks to 802.11a are threefold; first it is not directly compatible with 802.11b devices so you would need to have separate access-points for each standard with a network switch in between in order to allow devices with the different standards to communicate. Two, availability is limited, compared to 802.11b devices at least. Three, 802.11a devices are intended for business use, and as such tend to be priced at a premium.

802.11g is another officially accepted standard, and a sort of a hybrid of A and B, at least in terms of its feature set. It is capable of 54Mbps, but on the 2.4 GHz spectrum. It is completely compatible with 802.11b devices (using 802.11b's default 11Mbps speed, of course), but has better channel availability than that standard. 802.11g devices have gradually replaced 802.11b since it is interoperable with both a/b standards and offers better data throughput. Al l in all, 802.11g is the way to go. Setting up A Wireless Network First order of business is to install the wireless network adaptors into each computer. For desktop computers using a PCI network adaptor, you will need to power down the system, open up the case and insert the adaptor into a free PCI slot (the white slots running in a row down the back of the computer motherboard). Screw the card in, then close up the computer and restart, providing the driver disk when prompted. For a USB wireless adaptor, simply plug it into a free USB port while the computer is running, and install drivers when prompted. For laptop systems, you will either have a PCMCIA card adaptor (recommended) or a USB adaptor. Both can be plugged into the computer while it is running, though with the PCMCIA card adaptor it is a good idea to power off before you plug it in. Install the drivers as required. Now choose a location for your router. If you have decided that you will use wired connections for any of your desktop systems, obviously you want it close to them. The router will need to be wired to your DSL or cable modem if you are planning to share internet through i t. If you have multiple floors in your home or office, it is a good idea to put the router on the middle floor to ensure maximum connectivity. You can always change the location later once you see the kind of signals you are getting, so don't worry about it for too long. Plug the router in. Verify that the 'WLAN' LED is lit up. To test connectivity, open a web-browser on one of your wireless computers and enter the default IP address of your router. If you are not sure what this is, consult your manual, but typically it is 192.168.2.1. If successful you should wind up at the router's configuration interface screen. At this point, there are a number of things you may wish to configure. The only thing that is essential at the moment is if you have a DSL Internet connection, you will wish to enter your username and password for the connection into the router so it can dial the connection for you.

By default, your router will have a 'pool' of IP addresses which it will distribute to any clients who attempt to connect wirelessly. This is called the DHCP server. You can disable this feature by turning off the 'DHCP server' option, but if you do so, you will have to manually assign each wireless client an IP address in the same network as the router by browsing to 'My Network places/(your wireless adaptor)/TCP-IP settings' and entering an address in the proper range. For example, if your router's IP address is 192.168.1.1, you will need to give your client computers IP addresses in the range of 192.168.1.2-254 to connect. We will discuss some more efficient forms of securing your connection in a second. Your wireless network adaptors in each computer should have a status program (see the picture to the right of an SMC PC-card adaptor) that will give you basic information about your network and the signal strength available.

If the signal is poor you will need to reposition your router. Walls, people, and metal can absorb much of the wireless signal, so proper positioning of the router is important. Another important point to consider is securing your wireless network from just anyone accessing it. Securing A Wireless Network By default, a wireless network is wide open to anyone in range with the proper equipment. If you have set up your router to distribute IP addresses via DHCP, it will cheerfully give them to anyone who walks by with a wireless enabled pocket pc or laptop. Even if you have not, all that is necessary is for them to figure out which IP address range you are using, or use an easily available wireless network detection program such as NetStumbler , and they are in your network. Hmmm. All recent wireless routers/access-points come with two basic methods of securing their networks, WEP and MAC address filtering. A MAC address (also known as a physical address) is a unique hardware identifier assigned to every network device that looks something like '00-EF-78-C6-34-56'. MAC address filtering involves manually entering a list of the addresses found in your local network (you can easily find the MAC addresses of your network adaptors by going to the command prompt and typing 'ipconfig /all') and configuring the router to allow only these specific addresses to connect via the wireless network. The screenshot below is an example of setting up MAC address filtering, in this case on a SMC Barricade 4port wireless router. Note that this router offers two separate modes for MAC address filtering, connection and association. Allowing association for a specific address allows that address to communicate with other wireless clients on the network, but not the wired network on the other side of the router or the Internet. Allowing connection enables a client full communication through the router.

MAC address filtering is a good basic method of securing your wireless network. Its drawbacks are that it requires some initial manual configuration, to obtain and enter the MAC addresses, and it can be defeated by using a network traffic capture program in conjunction with a wireless card, and reading an 'allowed' MAC address from a captured packet, then usi ng this address on a new network adaptor. Not that anyone would bother to do this to get into your home network, but business networks would be prime targets for this kind of exploit. WEP or Wireless Encryption Protocol works by establishing a shared key between the clients and the access-point, then using the key to encrypt and de-encrypt the data passing between them. This offers adequate security for a home network, where the primary concern is that your neighbors do not find out what you are downloading. To configure WEP, you must enable it on the router and on each wireless adaptor (use the management software that came with the card.), and designate a passphrase or key for the network, which must be entered identically on each system.
Windows XP Service Pack 2 and its Wireless Features Service Pack 2 for Windows XP adds a few extra wireless networking setup interface to Windows XP, as well as a range of enhancements to the way that XP handles wireless connectivity. Let s take a look at it and some of the features it offers.

Wireless Network Setup Wizard

In previous versions of Windows XP, wireless network setup within the Windows interface could only be accomplished using the network setup wizard, a tool which encompasses several different network setups, but completely ignores the things that make wireless networking different, SSIDs and WEP/WAP encryption. As a result of this, the only way to properly configure your wireless networking devices was to trust to the manufacturer s software. Fine, unless you have several different types of wireless adaptor, in which case the whole operation becomes a nightmare of complexity. With the release of Service Pack 2, Microsoft debuted a new wizard, the wireless networking setup wizard, specifically geared to setting up wireless networks with several computers and a wireless gateway or router. This utility finally takes into account the need to set SSIDs and enable encryption so that new wireless users do not have their network intruded upon. As you can see, the wizard simply states the configuration requirements for a wireless network. In addition, WPA (Wireless Protected Access) support has been added to XP. Previously, devices that support this enhanced form of encryption had to be configured through third party applications (for more information on WPA, see PCSTATS' wireless security article ). Once you have completed the configuration information, you can either print the configuration out and apply it manually to your router/gateway and the other wireless systems in the network, or save the config files onto a USB memory key and have them transferred automatically to other systems when you plug the key into them. This also works for your wireless router if you happen to have one with a USB configuration port. Most models do not

have this though, so you will likely have to use a combination of both methods. Still it s a step in the right direction by Microsoft. We find the exclusion of a floppy disk option for transferring the data a bit puzzling though. Previous versions of Internet connection sharing and the network setup wizard used this, and we feel it s still relevant today. Ah well. Other Wireless Features of Service Pack 2 As we mentioned above, Windows XP now supports WPA (Wireless Protected Access) natively, which is a good thing, as you could not previously configure WPA encryption through the Windows interface. In addition to this, several minor and major enhancements have been made to the way that XP handles wireless connections. Let s run through them: The addition of WPS (Wireless Provisioning Service) to Windows XP. Allows wireless networking devices to automatically connect and configure themselves to available wireless hotspots, and also provides means for those hotspots to control who accesses the service without cumbersome configuration. More details on WPS here. The status screen for wireless network connections has been updated and improved.

It now shows considerably more information about available networks, including signal strength, security settings, whether or not you are connected, and which network is the preferred network of the available choices. It also allows you to access the wireless network adaptor configuration screen via the change advanced settings link. The configuration screen for wireless network adaptors has been changed to reflect the addition of WPA support, and also provides the means to change the preferred wireless network and whether this network should be connected to automatically.

The status screen for wireless connections has also been improved and now displays much more necessary information. In the same vein, the connection dialogues displayed when attempting to connect to a wireless network have been overhauled and are much more informative as to what is going on. For a more in-depth look at securing your new wireless network, see our guide here. For corresponding information on securing the PCs in your network, see our handy ten steps guide here. By now, hopefully, you have a secured wireless network running in your

home, or are prepared to install one.


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