Small Business Guide

Broadband & Mobility

Clueless about wireless 4 things to keep in mind

You have decided to take the plunge and go to a wireless network. But there's a dizzying array of numbers and letters. Security is difficult. Who could possibly have a grip on this?

Well, I do. So pull up a chair and get a big mug of caffeine. Together, we'll plow through this goop.

Adding Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) to your business is straightforward, once you get a grip on it. Wireless provides tremendous flexibility for you and your staff. But you have to pick the right equipment. And you need to understand security. That is critical. So, before we do anything else, let's wade through those catchy terms. Here are four things to keep in mind.

1. An alphanumeric mess
The technology behind wireless is sophisticated and complicated. There is an entire engineering standards committee devoted to it. The committee works in conjunction with the Wi-Fi Alliance to set standards and goals.

The Wi-Fi standards you need to know are 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11i and 802.11n. Isn't this exciting? Forget about 802.11i for the moment. That is a security standard. The others are networking standards. Three — including 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n — operate within the 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) radio frequency band.

This is the same frequency used by Bluetooth devices, baby monitors, cordless telephones and microwaves. So, if you use 2.4GHz networking equipment, these things can interfere.

You can beat the interference problem by using 802.11a. It operates in the 5GHz frequency. As a bonus, it operates at speeds up to 54 megabits per second. Unfortunately, it isn't compatible with the other flavors of Wi-Fi. So if you will be hitting the road with a laptop, your 802.11a card will be a liability. Public Wi-Fi hotspots offer 802.11b or g. They won't accommodate your 802.11a equipment.

One of the other wireless standards might be a better choice. But 802.11b is relatively slow. It's rated at just 11Mbps, maximum. To address the speed issue, 802.11g was developed. It supports a data rate of up to 54Mbps. But it still has the potential interference issues of the 2.4GHz band.

The newest standard, 802.11n, promises theoretical data rates of up to 540Mbps. It also offers greater range, a chronic Wi-Fi problem. Vendors are introducing products such as wireless routers and PC cards. But the 2.4GHz radio frequency interference remains an issue.

Additionally, at this writing, the 802.11n standard has not been finalized. That could mean compatibility problems between pieces of equipment.

Most people eventually go for one of the 2.4GHz networking standards. They use a site survey to ensure that potential interference is avoided. For instance, microwaves can be moved. And cordless phones can use different channels within the 2.4GHz frequency.

And one more thing: Mixing devices on the same network can be a delicate operation. Obviously, 802.11a devices will not work with other standards.

Supposedly, 802.11b, g and n devices will work together. After all, they all run on the 2.4GHz band. But I wouldn't count on that. If I were starting from scratch, I'd buy all one standard. It wouldn't be a bad idea to buy from one manufacturer, too.

2. Buying wireless equipment Enough with the letters and numbers already!

Let's run a scenario to put this all in perspective. You have an office with 25 employees. You have a cabled network for the desktop computers, but would like the flexibility wireless laptops provide. What should you purchase?
First, you will need a wireless access point. This device is connected via an Ethernet cable to any port on the network. You will need wireless PC cards for each laptop. The only caveat is distance, which will determine the number of access points.
A wireless laptop may roam past the network's signal. Additional access points can be placed strategically to increase the coverage area. Consider placing an access point every 150 feet indoors as a general strategy.

Most small offices have similar computing needs: file and print sharing, e-mail and Internet browsing. The decision about how fast you need the wireless segment to be is dependent upon what you need it for. Remember: Your system cannot run any faster on the Internet than your Web connection.

Very high data rates are promised by 802.11n. It might be overkill for a small office network. You might find that 802.11g is more than adequate, running up to 54Mbps.
At this point, I would go for 802.11g equipment. It is proven and should be fast enough in most cases. Laptops equipped with 802.11g should work at commercial hotspots. If you have salesmen on the road, that will be important.

When you buy your equipment, be sure that it is Wi-Fi certified. That promises (hopefully!) that the equipment will work with other certified gear.

You can check on certification easily. On the Wi-Fi Alliance site, select equipment by type, vendor and capabilities. But, before you choose your equipment, let's talk about security.

3. It's all about the letter "i"
Wireless networks put your data into the air. Unsecured wireless networks are a significant security risk. So, encryption is used to ensure that data cannot be stolen.
The state-of-the-art wireless encryption today is WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access, second generation). That also is known as 802.11i. Snoopers can intercept data encrypted by WPA2. But they cannot read it. The data will appear as gibberish.

If you already have wireless equipment, it may have WPA encryption. WPA is an interim standard that was used before the approval of WPA2. According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, WPA is satisfactory.

You also could have WEP, which stands for Wired Equivalent Privacy. This is an old, and easily broken, encryption standard. If you are using it, you should upgrade to WPA2. Some manufacturers can download an upgrade to you.

Otherwise, buy new equipment. WEP is dangerous. You might as well have no encryption at all.

4. Putting it all together
You can have your wireless network up and running in literally minutes. That is, if you have purchased gear that is compatible, certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, and that supports WPA2 security. Really, the hardest part is over.

The access point can be connected to any port on the network. The PC cards generally come with an installation CD. But Windows XP will recognize and install most drivers automatically.

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