The Wacky World of WiFi

You're forgiven if you thought 802.11n, the latest tag on wireless routers, was already an official standard

In honor of the 802.11n WiFi standard getting close to arriving after wandering through the desert for 40 years, let's look at wireless. Our focus today is on helping you WiFi better, even if it means doing less WiFi.

You're forgiven if you thought 802.11n, the latest tag on wireless routers, was already an official standard. Not yet, although the WiFi manufacturers got so tired of waiting for the 802.11n group they created their own "draft standard" and coerced different vendors to work together on a pre-standard standard."

WiFi standards have always been wonky. First came 802.11b, then 802.11a, then 802.11g, and now, years later, 802.11n. This only proves WiFi committee members don't know shinola about the alphabet. (WiMAX, the 802.16 wireless family, will be ignored for now, because we're talking about WiFi support inside your business, not for long distances outside.)

My first guideline for WiFi implementations for small businesses is don't WiFi if you can avoid it. Wireless connections are always slower and less secure than wired connections. Automatically eliminate the idea of WiFi for all desktop computers and laptops purchased as desktop replacements. If your laptop has a docking station, it should use a wired connection just like the desktop computer it replaced.

Of course that will upset the WiFiFanatics because they want to carry laptops to meetings for "increased productivity." In every group meeting I've been in this last year, half the people with open laptops have been checking e-mail and Facebook during the meeting. That's not productive, it's destructive. Even when companies pay me to be in meetings, I want the meetings to be as short as possible. WiFi in the meeting room just enables some attendees to entertain themselves instead of participating in the meeting. I wish I had one of those WiFi blocking devices for the next meeting I have to go to.

Now the productivity experts are upset. WiFiFanatics spout the productivity mantra at every opportunity, yet I've never seen hard numbers on how WiFi access in the company restrooms helps the company make more money. I'm not sure checking Facebook while walking around with your laptop is productivity the company will appreciate.

Devices that stay put don't need wireless. The Epson WorkForce 600 multi-function printer I've been testing has wireless support, but I'm not sure why. Who carries a printer around? How does that help productivity?

That said, your WiFi world will change when 802.11n actually arrives. If you're still using the same WiFi routers and access points you bought five or more years ago, an upgrade is in your future. Five year old WiFi, especially if your access point is bundled inside your primary router, needs to be updated for security reasons. You'll also appreciate the performance boost of newer WiFi hardware.

My second guideline for better WiFi is to use equipment from the same vendor for all your wireless needs. Smaller companies can get by with a single router or wireless access point, so vendor compatibility isn't an issue. When you expand and need a second access point, buy from the same vendor. If that vendor has disappeared, buy two new access points from a single vendor. It's time to update your wireless if your vendor has had time to go out of business since your installation.

Third, the easiest way to improve your WiFi is to upgrade the antennas on your routers and access points. You can even get longer antennas for consumer wireless hardware, and they're worth the money. The better your antenna, the better your reception. Better reception means faster throughput and fewer access points.

Ask your wireless supplier about a Yagi antenna if your physical location is an unusual shape. Yagi antennas add distance by directing signals where you point them. Have a long, spaghetti shaped warehouse? One access point with a Yagi antenna may do a better job than two or three omni-directional access points. You save money on access points, and better control where your wireless signals go. Signals that go outside your building made it much easier for hackers to attack.

Fourth, you no longer need to worry about lobby wireless networks, or guest networks for visitors. When WiFi became popular, vendors pushed a second network, separate from your internal network, for visitors as they waited in the lobby or in meeting areas. Today, road warriors will have 3G Mobile Broadband support, so you can drop the cost and complexity of a lobby network.

Finally, define your security measures during your WiFi planning, not after, because WiFi demands stricter internal security. Plans that focus on a strong firewall and protections at your router don't stop intruders that float through the walls on your WiFi signals. With WiFi as a major portion of your network, individual computer protection becomes mandatory.

How your clients access and authenticate to your wireless network can make or break your security. Wireless access points that broadcast the SSID (Service Set Identifier) to make them easier to locate also invite outsiders to try and connect to your network. Configure your wireless clients to automatically connect to your network and don't advertise the name.

Be careful of "rogue access points" that appear thanks to clueless employees. These are consumer wireless routers employees buy and plug in themselves without "bothering" the IT folks with the details. Security configuration? None. Security headaches? Many. Check for strange networks that appear when you do a "find networks" scan, and hunt down those employees and confiscate those rogue access points.

Already suspect, WiFi security got another black eye when Japanese researchers advertised they hacked WPA (WiFi Protected Access) encrypted traffic in less than one minute last week. Now the only secure option is WPA 2. All wireless hardware made since March 2006 supports WPA 2, another reason to upgrade your WiFi hardware soon.

Is WiFi handy? Absolutely. Does it make networking possible in places you can't run wires, like historic buildings or big open spaces? Absolutely. But as always, convenience comes at a cost, and that's never more true than when using WiFi.

Tags Wi-FiNetworking802.11n

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James E. Gaskin

Network World

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