Wireless Networking Resources Online


This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2339, 2005-09-30, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 18 and 20) and their website.

Wireless networking technologies are slowly yet inexorably transforming the way computers and other devices can communicate with one another, the same way that wireless technology in general has been revolutionizing human communication for over a century. Back in 1894, Italian researcher Guglielmo Marconi began experimenting with radio waves ("Hertzian Waves"), and within two years obtained a patent and then founded Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Limited, the first radio factory in the world.

In the early 20th century, radio waves were being utilized for sending messages over the Atlantic Ocean, and, even more critically, for sending distress messages from ships struggling in that ocean. The value of wireless communication among naval vessels was not lost on the Americans, who furthered the use of radio during World War II for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore message transmission. The privacy of the communications was secured by introducing encryption into the process.

Radio technology was first combined with computer technology in the form of wireless local area networks (LANs), which got started in 1971, at the University of Hawaii, as a result of their ALOHNET research project. They connected seven computers located on four separate islands, to create the world's first wireless LAN, without any use of phone lines. Using what is referred to as a "bi-directional star topology", all of the computers in the network were able to communicate with each other by sending and receiving messages to the central computer on Oahu.

Nowadays, we make use of various topologies as well as many other networking standards; but the marketplace leader at this time is "Wi-Fi" (short for "wireless fidelity"). Wi-Fi refers to any type of 802.11 network, including 802.11b and 802.11a. By adhering to the 802.11 standards, computer network users are able to take advantage of wireless products from different manufacturers, and be assured that those products will work seamlessly with each other within the same network.

At least, that's how it's supposed to work in theory. Wireless computer networks work fine… until they don't. Then it can be extremely difficult to discern exactly what is causing one component of the network to not be seen by others. Fortunately, there are resources on the Internet that can be helpful to anyone who is struggling to troubleshoot a wireless network — whether it is an extensive, building-wide corporate LAN, or just a simple home network with a minimal number of nodes.

Quality Components

Any chef can tell you that if you want to bake an excellent cake, then you have to use excellent ingredients. The same is true of wireless computer networks (although baking a router at 350 is not recommended). If any of the components of your proposed home wireless network are of low quality or do not conform to the Wi-Fi standards, then you can expect nothing but trouble when trying to get the network to function properly. Or, you may find that your computer can receive the signal just fine, and even give you Internet access, but the network traffic may be much slower than what you paid for, or develop packet dropouts or other problems, and eventually degrade over time as do the components.

To identify the best components for your proposed home wireless network — including modems, routers, hubs, switches, etc. — you can first start at PracticallyNetworked, which is a well-regarded website featuring product reviews, tutorials and troubleshooting guides, user reviews (over 8000!), a glossary of wireless terms (Webopedia entries), a news archive going back to 1999, price comparisons (via HardwareCentral), forums, and a free newsletter. Perhaps first start by deciding how much money you want to spend on your new network, and then selecting the particular products and manufacturers based upon the reviews from PracticallyNetworked and its visitors, as well as the best prices available using the price comparisons, within your spending limits.

For instance, in choosing a wireless router, you could scan through the 127 product reviews on routers, and perhaps use PracticallyNetworked's "Compare Selected" capability to create your own side-by-side feature comparison tables. Unfortunately, there are only 10 products listed per page, and the website does not appear to be programmed for saving product selections from previous pages, and so there seems to be no way of comparing products scattered across multiple pages. You could read all of the site's reviews on the most promising routers, as well as using the site's search capability to quickly locate all of the user reviews. These tend to be more brutally candid than the official reviews; but bear in mind that the results are also more anecdotal.

You could also check the manufacturers' sites, as those often have more up-to-date information — at least for those products whose reviews are a bit dated, as some of them are. In the case of choosing a router, you could search for additional information on your chosen router on the manufacturer's site. Some of the major ones are: Belkin, Buffalo Technology, D-Link, IOGEAR, Linksys, Netgear, and 3Com.

Networking Is Good

Now that you have selected and purchased the components for your home wireless network, it's time to put them all together. For those people experienced with computer networking, setting up the network may be as easy as installing the wireless modem, plugging the wireless router in to the cable or DSL modem, powering everything up in the correct sequence, and verifying that the network security settings are such that your neighbors won't be free riding on your Internet service. But less experienced individuals might need some guidance in putting the pieces together and getting everything to work correctly.

PracticallyNetworked has some handy tutorials on network installation, setup, file and printer sharing, Linux, TiVo, and other topics. About.com has a number of decent articles that aim to help the reader navigates such issues as Wi-Fi, wired versus wireless, DSL versus cable, router setup, and VPNs. They even have an interactive home networking advisor, similar to a Windows wizard, in that it steps you through the process. HomeNetHelp.com has tutorials, forums, diagrams, product reviews, and articles — with a clear orientation to those readers just getting started with the basics.

Many computer enthusiasts who try to put together their own networks, find that the most difficult and frustrating problems crop up, not from the hardware components and their connectors and drivers, but with their computer's operating system. For Windows users, WindowsNetworking.com offers a fine selection of articles, tutorials, hardware info, forums ("message boards"), free newsletters, and software to download. Lastly, if you encounter a particular error message while using your wireless network, oftentimes the fastest way to learn more about the problem and recommended solutions, is to simply use an Internet search engine on the error message.

Regardless of what difficulties, if any, you have in setting up and securing your home network, you should be able to find helpful information on the ultimate network — the Internet.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.