Wireless Networking

Connecting a WLAN to the Web

There are two ways that an Internet connection can be shared with a WLAN. In the first instance, one computer must have dial-up or broadband access while the other(s) connect via a proxy server or Network Address Translation (NAT) service, such as Windows Internet Connection Sharing or ICS, running on the host computer.

What is Centrino?

Intel's Centrino technology is an umbrella term that encompasses a range of integrated wireless, performance, efficiency and speed-stepping technologies designed for notebook computers.

The wireless aspect of Centrino provides Wi-Fi certified connectivity using any 802.11 protocol, as well as WEP, WPA and the forthcoming AES security standards. If you are looking to buy a new notebook computer and battery life is a priority, then Centrino might offer some advantages over the mini-PCI or USB wireless adaptors discussed earlier.

The other technique involves a router - which may or may not have an integrated access point - that is wired up to a modem. In this case, the router performs the Internet connection sharing. The latter method is preferred as it does not require any computer to be booted-up and operational in order for the other(s) to have Internet access.

Boosting wireless signal

It is possible to buy specialised antennae that can boost the signal strength of a wireless device. In most cases these are only available for access points as few WNIC devices include a detachable antenna - which is required in order to fit a new one. Antennae range from 5dBi to 9dBi in signal gain and are typically designed to work either as a directional or omni-directional device. Directional antennae are usually used outdoors for long range signal boosting between remote access points. Home and small offices normally use omni-directional antennae, which provide an overall boost to network signal strength in a WLAN environment.

Other wireless technologies

Bluetooth is a wireless protocol designed to connect computers to gadgets such as mobile phones and PDAs. Although it is possible to connect two computers together via $60 Bluetooth adaptors - and Bluetooth access points are available - they can't compete with the flexibility or throughput of a WLAN. The range of Bluetooth is only about 10m and the data rate is a mere 723Kbps with a typical throughput of only 300Kbps, making it virtually unusable except for small file transfers.

Another wireless option is to use an Infrared protocol known as IrDA (Infrared Data Association). Many notebook computers are equipped with IrDA wireless adaptors, and these allow simple file transfers between nearby computers as well as the downloading of photos from digital cameras. USB IrDA adaptors are also available for under $60 for use with Windows XP/2000/ME/98SE computers. Like Bluetooth, this is a possible substitute for wired peer-to-peer networking, but isn't really a valid alternative to a WLAN. The IrDA protocol is rated at 4Mbps with a high-speed version called VFIR rated at 16Mbps.

HomeRF 2.0 is a competing wireless standard that is claimed to be up to 2.5 times faster than 802.11b although it is rated at only 10Mbps. While access points, USB and PCI adaptors are available for less than their 802.11 counterparts, the technology is not compatible with any 802.11 device and is widely expected to be unsupported in the near future.

What is the future of wireless?

In November 2003 Intel announced that wireless router technology was to be integrated into desktop computers later in 2004, replacing the need for an access point to build a WLAN. The chipset would not include the necessary Wi-Fi radio card, however, and would require the PC to be permanently powered-up in order to function. Pre-empting Intel's plans somewhat, Asus and MSI have already started shipping motherboards with onboard wireless adaptors. While this doesn't replace the need for an access point, it is a sign that wireless networking is becoming more accessible and mainstream.

The integrated Wireless adaptor in the new ASUS motherboards makes WLAN configuration simple. Here's an example of an ASUS WLAN settings status box.

Probably the most anticipated development in wireless will be the ratification of the IEEE 802.11i and 802.11g standards. The major advantage of these new protocols is they address the security flaws of the current wireless protocols. This security benefit of 802.11i is expected to be complemented by the increased bandwidth of 802.11g devices.

Guide last modified in June 2005

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