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Wireless Woes

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In an ideal world wireless connection would work just like the communicators in Star Trek. You’d simply say the name of the person you wanted to talk to and their receiver would spring into action without annoying everyone else on the same network. Naturally no-one would ever get a crossed line or a ‘busy’ signal and they would never ever be in the toilet. Also, there would be no concept of time zones and if you woke someone up they would be cheery and alert.

We all know that is pure fantasy but the real killer is that everyone gets perfect signal reception in Star Trek (although the occasional ion storm gets in the way to spice up the story) and no-one ever suffers from a flat battery.

Back on Planet Earth things aren’t so easy.

Windows XP SP2 makes it a doddle to scan for available wireless networks, which can throw up precisely one in your home office or a dozen in an office block in the West End of London. Providing the routers are configured to broadcast their SSID you should find it easy enough to work out which connection you want to latch onto, although it can be a bit vexing if you find four that are called ‘Cisco’ with no hint about their location or ownership.

Provided your System Administrator has told you to connect to ‘Marge’ or ‘Home’ with WEP key XYZ then you should be able to connect to the network without too much hassle, as long as you have a network adapter that is compatible with the router or access point. In theory this should also be a doddle as the two most common standards are 802.11b and 802.11g which both use an operating frequency of 2.4GHz, while 802.11a operates at 5GHz but made very little impact outside of America.

You should find that it’s quite easy to establish a reasonably secure connection, which leaves the two big issues of connection speed and connection range, and this is where manufacturers’ claims can diverge quite dramatically from real life.

Probably the easiest wireless environment is an open-plan office with a router or access point mounted high on a wall. The wireless signal is non-directional and forms a cone that covers the entire office at relatively short range – say 20 metres - so the only consideration is how you divide up the 11Mbit/sec of Wi-Fi bandwidth among those who want to get connected. If that doesn’t give adequate connection speed you can upgrade to 802.11g hardware and expect to get the best part of 54Mbit/sec which should do the job nicely.

If you still haven’t got enough bandwidth then it’s time to consider one of the pre-n solutions. The 802.11n standard is still some months away from ratification but any number of companies offer pre-n hardware that either bonds two 802.11g signals to give up to 104Mbit/sec or which goes the whole hog with MiMo (Multiple In, Multiple Out) technology that uses two or more antennae to deliver up to 270Mbit/sec. The problem with any technology that uses an unratified standard is that there is little or no guarantee that it will be compatible with other makes and models of hardware.

Typically an office network uses CAT5 cabling and is then extended to allow wireless access. But in the home you have a completely different situation as 90 percent of Broadband users have an ADSL connection while the other 10 per cent have a cable connection that terminates in either a phone cable or an Ethernet cable. Hopefully you have this cable plugged into a router to give you a number of options for connection but in essence your router is your network. Provided your PC or notebook is in the same room as the router then it’s simple to make a connection over Ethernet but if you want a second or third connection in another room then you are faced with the choice of running Ethernet cable under the carpet or using wireless and we find that it’s a real pain to get a solid wireless connection through brick walls.

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