Wireless Networking



What is wireless networking?

Technically, wireless networking refers to any data exchange between PCs and other devices which doesn't involve cables. Connecting to a wireless hotspot in a cafe, sending data from your PC to a handheld computer using an infrared link, or synching data between your mobile phone and notebook via Bluetooth are all examples of wireless networking.

In practice, however, wireless networking allows computers and peripherals to communicate using radio frequency (RF) transmissions rather than over conventional network cabling. Using wireless Ethernet adaptors, any device capable of being used on a regular computer network can be accessed over a wireless connection for tasks ranging from file and printer sharing to multimedia and Internet access.

Wireless Ethernet technology is generally outlined by a set of standards called IEEE 802.11, although other wireless technologies and protocols such as HomeRF and Bluetooth also exist. A wireless network of this kind can offer you all the facilities of a conventional PC network, such as Internet access and the ability to share files and peripherals such as printers. It uses the same Ethernet standards for transmitting data, but doesn't require every machine be connected by cable to a network hub. In the previous examples, connecting in a cafe makes use of Wi-Fi wireless networks, while the others don't.

This guide will focus on wireless networking at home or in a small business, using equipment based on the 802.11 standard.


What is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi is a certification program established by the Wi-Fi Alliance (www.wirelessethernet.org) to ensure the interoperability of wireless devices. Originally, the term Wi-Fi was intended to be interchangeable with 802.11b, but more recently it has broadened to cover any 802.11 network. Bear in mind that while all Wi-Fi devices conform to the IEEE 802.11 standard, the reverse is not always true.


Types of Wi-Fi

Network Protocol Maximum Speed Average Speed Wireless Range
802.11a 54Mbps 27Mbps 12m indoors, 30m line-of-sight outdoors
802.11b 11Mbps 4.5Mbps 30m indoors, 120m line-of-sight outdoors
802.11g 54Mbps 7Mbps (in compatibility mode), 16Mbps (with other 802.11g devices) 30m indoors, 120m line-of-sight outdoors
NB: Some manufacturers have developed proprietary technology that can double the data rate of wireless devices. These are not IEEE 802.11 compliant and will only work at these speeds with other compatible proprietary devices.



Wireless standards

The communication protocols for wireless networking are defined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.11 standard, which incorporates the 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g protocols (although several other standards are in progress). The most widely used of these is 802.11b (Wireless-B), which is more reliable than the faster 802.11a (Wireless-A) standard. It is more cost-effective to produce and operate as well. Wireless-G, or 802.11g, is a newer protocol that is becoming more widely adopted by vendors as it is capable of speeds up to 54Mbps rather than the 11Mbps of 802.11b devices.

It is very rare to find devices that support all three standards, but Wireless-G is designed to be backwards compatible with Wireless-B devices. Thus Wireless-B and Wireless-A devices will not work with each other, and neither are they compatible with Wireless-G devices.

It is worth noting that although the maximum speed provided by the IEEE standards is 54Mbps, some vendors (notably D-Link) have introduced proprietary protocols that effectively double the 802.11b rate to 22Mbps and the 802.11g rate to 108Mbps. Once again this is a theoretical throughput, with actual data rates being considerably lower. It is also worth bearing in mind that all wireless network devices must support the proprietary standard in order to function at these higher speeds.


How does wireless work?

Wireless technology utilizes the license-free radio frequency bands around the 2.4GHz and/or 5GHz ranges. The 802.11b and 802.11g protocols use the 2.4GHz band whereas 802.11a uses the 5GHz band. The benefit of this frequency band is that it is longer-range, although it can be susceptible to interference from other RF devices such as cordless phones.

The 5GHz band used by 802.11a provides more bandwidth and less interference, but it requires more expensive hardware, larger silicon chips and higher power consumption. As a consequence, Wireless-B is by far the most popular standard, with the newer Wireless-G closing in fast.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

PC World Staff

PC World
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Bang and Olufsen Beosound Stage - Dolby Atmos Soundbar

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Nakamichi Delta 100 3-Way Hi Fi Speaker System

Learn more >

ASUS ROG, ACRONYM partner for Special Edition Zephyrus G14

Learn more >

Sony WF-1000XM3 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit for Nintendo Switch

Learn more >

Philips Sonicare Diamond Clean 9000 Toothbrush

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Teac 7 inch Swivel Screen Portable DVD Player

Learn more >

SunnyBunny Snowflakes 20 LED Solar Powered Fairy String

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?