Wireless Internet routers have become extremely popular in the last few years. It’s easy to see why. They are inexpensive, easy to set up, and make surfing the Internet a lot more fun. Most new laptop computers are ready for wireless communications right out of the box. The number of free public wireless access points is growing each year. Wireless Internet access is now available in airports, hotels, and coffee shops. There really isn’t any reason to hesitate making the leap into you own home wireless network. There are some basic concepts about wireless routers that are important to keep in mind. This article will explain them.
Basically, an Internet router allows multiple computers to communicate with each other and to share a single DSL or cable modem. A wireless (or Wi-Fi) router allows multiple computers to communicate with each other, or over the Internet, without requiring a connection cable. You can roam around freely and work on your laptop from anywhere in the house, exchanging files with the other computers in your home network and surfing the Internet at the same time. You are no longer forced to work at a desk near your modem. You can access the Internet and the other computers in your network from your kitchen table, the bedroom, or even the backyard while watching your kids play.
A simple wireless home network consists of a DSL or cable modem connected to a wireless router. A typical wireless router has four ports for connecting nearby computers using Ethernet cable, and also a broadcasting antenna for wireless communications. A computer connected by an Ethernet cable will transfer faster than by wireless, but the cable connection is limited to about 20 feet. Longer distances require a signal booster. On the other hand, a wireless computer can be 50 feet or more from the router. The actual wireless communication speed will depend on the particular location and the distance between the router and the computer. Wireless modems communicate using the same frequencies as other household devices like wireless telephones. As the distance between the router and the computer increases, the radio signal degrades and the transmission speed drops. Outside interference from other nearby Wi-Fi devices also cause the data transfer rate to drop. In most cases, the signal will be strong within 50 feet of the wireless router but drops rapidly at distances greater than 100 feet. Because of that, it is best to locate a wireless router on the same floor as the computers that are using it, and place it in a central location. With fewer walls, and less interference, the signal is stronger, and the data transmission rate remains good.
It’s common to mix wired and wireless connections on a single home network. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to do just that, plugging and unplugging computers from the network as needed. The connection cable is a common RJ-45 (also called a CAT5) Ethernet cable, similar in appearance to an RJ-11 cable used for telephones. An Ethernet compatible computer can be plugged directly into one of the ports on the router when a reliable fast connection is needed. Then, a laptop or desktop computer with 802.11 Wi-Fi support can be unplugged when wireless communication is needed. The slower speed of Wi-Fi is hardly noticeable when surfing the Internet. Your DSL and cable modem communicates far slower than Ethernet or wireless communications. Sharing large files between machines is another matter. You’ll probably want the fastest possible connection when copying large files between the computers in your network. In that case having Ethernet ports on the wireless router comes in handy. We’ll talk more about speed a little later.
Three standard 802.11 communication protocols are in use today. They are referred to as type A, B, and G. Type A (or 802.11a) works at a different radio frequency than type B and G. Type A has a stronger signal at short distances and is more common in small business networks. Type B (or 802.11b) and G (802.11g) operate using the same radio frequency, and have a longer operating range. They are more common for home wireless networks. Because B and G operate at the same frequency, wireless routers that support type G typically support type B too. The opposite is not always true. Type G is the newer and faster protocol. It became a standard after type B was established. However, type B is still more common in laptops that have wireless capabilities built-in. But, fear not! There are inexpensive wireless B and G interface cards available that are compatible with most laptops and desktops. They can be added to upgrade your capabilities if you make that choice later. Remember that for internet access using a DSL or cable modem, the difference between them is hardly noticeable since the modem connection is much slower than either type B or G.
Did you say how fast? Well, a computer connected to a router using an Ethernet cable communicates at up to 100 megabits per second (Mbps). A router using Wireless-A (802.11a) operates at a frequency of 5 GHz, and can communicate at up to 54Mbps at a distance of about 50-75 feet. A router using Wireless-B (802.11b) operates at 2.4 GHz, and transmits data at up to 11Mbps, with a range of about 100-150 feet. A Wireless-G router (802.11g) transmits data at up to 54Mbps like Wireless-A, but has the range like Wireless-B and operates reasonably well up to 100-150 feet. Wireless-G is about five times faster than Wireless-B. The drawback of routers that transmit at a frequency of 2.4 GHz is interference from nearby wireless telephones and microwave ovens. In actual use, the performance varies according to the individual situation. If there are several wireless telephones in use within 150-200 feet, and the building has walls made of concrete, the performance will be lower than if there are no wireless devices in use nearby, and the walls are of typical residential construction. A DSL or cable modem that downloads files at a maximum of 1.5Mbps to 3Mbps is significantly slower than Wireless-B operating at 11Mbps. The extra speed of Wireless-G comes is especially helpful if there is more than one wireless computer in the network and copying files between computers is commonplace. Nowadays, the price of wireless routers is so low that the difference in cost isn’t that very significant between Wireless-B and Wireless-G routers. Spending a few extra dollars for Wireless-G is worth it in most cases.
How much will it cost to get started? Not a lot. If you already have a broadband modem, your internet service provider probably has packages available and provides technical support for their recommended configurations. Contact them for more information. If you are a do-it-yourself type, and want to save a few dollars at the cost of some added frustration, there are plenty of options to choose from. Wireless-B routers from companies like LinkSys, D-Link, Netgear, and Belkin typically sell for $25-$50. Wireless-G routers that are compatible with Wireless-B go for $50-$75. If your laptop doesn’t already have wireless capabilities built-in, a Wireless-B+G compatible PCMCIA interface card runs about $50-$75. A wireless PCI interface card for your desktop computer costs about the same. Most vendors provide bundles with a wireless router and matching laptop PCMCIA card. Purchasing the pair together can mean substantial savings over purchasing each individually. Rebate offers are common. Check your favorite internet superstore for the availability of current bundles.
What is the best configuration for you? Consider your working habits. A lot depends on how you like to use your computer, and the ports you have available on the machine. There are wireless adapters that plug into the USB port. There are wireless devices that plug into flash card ports. There are wireless adapters you can use with your printer. There are even Wireless-G video cameras that will send remote pictures through your wireless router. You should also be aware that each manufacturer has wireless models available with boosted speeds that go beyond Wireless-G. Some claim to double the Wireless-G data transfer rate reaching upwards to 104Mbps. But also be aware that these special speed-boosted “Super-G” protocols are not yet standard and are incompatible across brands. To take advantage of the higher speed you’ll need to use a wireless interface of the same brand and similar model. The new Wireless-N (or 802.11n) protocol will not become a standard until sometime in 2006. Like all new technology, wireless 802.11n routers will be more costly, and there is no guarantee that current “Super-G” routers will be compatible. Before investing in the bleeding-edge of technology it’s a good idea to check with each manufacturer for a specific description of the restrictions that apply to their particular devices.
A few more things to consider about a wireless network. If you live in the suburbs your neighbors are probably outside the 150-200 foot range of your wireless network signal. If you live in an urban apartment complex or school dorm, you are much more likely to have other wireless computers operating nearby. In that case your wireless signals are broadcast much like a wireless telephone. You should use the data encryption protocols available on wireless routers so the information broadcasting between your computer and router is secure. Use a encrypted protocol (WEP for instance), and always use a firewall. Both are a common features available on most units. Also, there internal settings that can be changed in the wireless router setup that will limit the number of wireless users the router will accept at a given time. If you only have one computer on the wireless router, it’s a good idea to limit the number of users the router will accept to just one. Here’s an important tip — don’t leave the wireless routers password set to the manufacturers default. Change it to something unique and private.
Speaking from my own experience, putting together a wireless home network is the most exciting upgrade I have ever made to my home office network. It was much easier to configure than I anticipated. I am still learning new ways to use it more efficiently. It has simplified and changed the way I work, expanding my capabilities ten times over. Like broadband high-speed modems, moving into wireless networking is not something you are likely to regret later. It’s not a passing fad. Wireless internet routers are here to stay and will only get better in the years ahead.