The idea of sitting in your living room, backyard, or private office with your notebook, untethered yet still connected to the Internet, is enough reason for many people to consider a wireless network. But there are other reasons people go wireless: sometimes the layout of a home or small office makes it difficult or not economically feasible to run new Ethernet cables from room to room. Sometimes, if you travel as much as I do, wireless connections in airports and hotels keep you well connected to the world.
Whether you’re adding wireless networking to an existing wired network or you're going to start off wireless, the good news is that plenty of relatively inexpensive, easy-to-install wireless products are available.
THE HOME AND OFFICE CONNECTION
First, some basics: a wireless network communicates over the airwaves using small, low-powered radio transceivers. Such products operate either in the 2.4-GHz band (shared with other wireless devices like cordless telephones and microwave ovens) or in the 5-GHz band. If you have a 2.4-GHz cordless phone system in your home, you occasionally may get some disturbance across both systems.
In a typical configuration, a wireless Ethernet card is installed in your desktop or notebook computer. It communicates with a base station—a device that contains a radio transceiver as well as a connection to a wired network. Wireless routers, access points, and wireless gateways are all types of base stations. They can be connected to your local wired network, the Internet, or a cable line coming into your home or office.
By far, the most common wireless networking products on the market are products that adhere to the 802.11b standard set by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). They operate in the 2.4-GHz band and support 4 data rates: 11, 5.5, 2, and 1 megabytes per second (Mbps). Newer standards of 802.11a and 802.11g are becoming more and more popular. There are compatibility concerns with the different standards, so you should try to stick with whatever makes you comfortable.
In the real world, the highest data rate that you can get is 11 Mbps. However, the actual throughput is closer to 5.5 Mbps. Though this is significantly slower than the throughput of a wired network running at 100 Mbps, it’s generally more than adequate for almost all typical home or home/office applications. It is also significantly faster than the performance expected from either a cable connection to the Internet (1 to 1.5 Mbps) or a DSL connection (768 Kbps). Therefore, your wireless network isn’t going to slow down your e-mail or surfing.
Wireless isn’t just for the big business anymore. Prices of 802.11b-compatible wireless networking equipment have fallen steadily over the past year. While most of the action in the 802.11b marketplace has focused on the business environment, most vendors have begun shipping 802.11b products designed specifically for the home and small-office markets. This move pits 802.11b against the older, more established HomeRF standard in the wireless home-networking market.
At the same time, residential gateway products have also become hot. These devices combine an Internet firewall, Ethernet hub or switch, and an IP router in a small package that lets users share a single DSL or cable modem connection among several computers. A new breed of products such as the D-Link and 3Com products marry a residential gateway with a wireless network. This union lets users share an Internet connection, printers, and files among a mix of wired and wireless computers, and they do so at a price only slightly higher than a stand-alone wireless access point.
Many laptops today come equipped with wireless capabilities. If yours doesn’t come with a built-in wireless card, you can easily use a wireless card that fits into any PCMCIA slot. Virtually all wireless networking vendors sell such cards. Prices range from about $49 to $79. Common products in this group include the D-Link DWL-650H, the Linksys WPC11, and the SMC Networks SMC2435W. New products are coming out all the time, so ask your vendor what is now available. Also, you need to make sure it is compatible with what you have. With new 802.11 a and g wireless equipment coming out, compatibility issues are a big concern.
THE AIRPORT CONNECTION
On a recent trip across country doing a series of aesthetic dentistry lectures, I found myself stuck in the Detroit Metro Airport. A large number of flights had been delayed or cancelled because of bad weather. The ticket counters were jammed, the lines were long, and calling Northwest Airlines on my cell phone produced nothing but an annoying busy signal. I was standing in line, juggling luggage and my laptop. Out of desperation, I grabbed my D-Link 650 wireless card and fired up my Windows XP Professional laptop. I pushed the card into a PCMCIA slot. I was amazed and delighted to find that the Windows XP operating system had an in-box driver for this card. After 20 seconds, an icon in the system tray announced that my new hardware was installed and ready for use. I restarted the computer, and when I logged on, I found that it had already established a wireless network connection and that I had Internet access, even though it was slow. I felt once again in touch with the world. In about 5 minutes, I opened the Northwest Airlines flight information and reservations Web site, and I found an available flight that had not been cancelled and made an online reservation. (I even made it home that night and slept in my own bed!)
Wireless Internet connectivity is essential these days, whether you are traveling for business or leisure. It is offered in many places, sometimes for free. It is a wonderful way to keep in touch with family, friends, patients, and the office. Internet connectivity for travelers in airports is on the rise. Most major airports such as the ones in Houston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Newark, and Dallas have some areas in the airport that provide free wireless connections. For now, however, you’re more likely to find connectivity at your hotel, where the number of options usually increases dramatically over what is available at airports.
THE LOBBY CONNECTION
Hotel lobbies are becoming wireless connection hot spots at a rapid pace. Wireless 802.11b access is available in many of the DoubleTree, Radisson, Four Seasons, Sheraton, Westin, Hilton, Marriott, and Wyndham hotels. In most cases, it is absolutely free of charge. It is not unusual to see hotel lobbies full of people with their laptops in hand (and on their laps) cruising the Internet and getting some serious work done. I even saw someone doing a video conference on his laptop sitting in the lobby of a Westin.
THE ROOM CONNECTION
When you reach your hotel, you may find that you have a choice of connectivity options in your room. We’ve come a long way from the old days of crawling under desks or behind beds to find a place to plug in your modem. Many major hotel chains—and even small bed-and-breakfast accommodations—offer dial-up data ports near regular room telephones. And, in increasing numbers, hotels are offering in-room wired Ethernet connectivity at approximately $9.95 per 24-hour period.
Choosing hotel connectivity when there are several options depends on what tasks you need to perform. If your hotel offers free wireless 802.11b lobby access and you need it only to keep in touch with family and friends, it’s an obvious choice if you have a wireless card for your laptop. If there is no free wireless service and you need e-mail to keep in touch with family and friends, a dial-up connection in your hotel room may be the smart choice, even if faster Ethernet is available. Most hotels will charge you for making local calls or even if you use an 800 number. And remember that toll-free 800 numbers offered by Internet service providers (ISPs) usually carry their own surcharge of around 10 cents per minute.
If you can’t handle slow dial-up speeds and you want to do more than just check e-mail, you may choose to pay for an Ethernet connection in your room.
Sometimes, the e-mail account provided by your ISP won’t work if you’re not on the ISP network. Many ISPs allow you to receive mail via their POP servers off-network, but they won’t allow you to send mail via their SMTP servers. A hotel service provider may offer an alternative SMTP server for outbound mail. You can check with your hotel before your trip and ask who provides its Internet connectivity, then visit the provider’s Web site for information.
Sending and receiving e-mail on the road can sometimes be a frustrating experience, which is why I typically will have a couple of e-mail accounts as well as such Web-based e-mail accounts like Hotmail or Yahoo. In this way, I know that I will be able to access e-mail in one way or another. If you know that you’ll be using Hotmail or Yahoo while on the road, you can find out if your regular ISP offers a way to forward your e-mail to your account. You can set up the forwarding before you leave home.
Wireless capabilities add a new dimension to the computing experience, whether it is at home or on the road. Imagine sitting by the pool in your backyard while surfing the Web on your home wireless network. Wireless connectivity can be a real time saver, especially when you are traveling and there is a sudden change in your travel plans. Now you don’t ever have to be out of touch, unless, of course, you want to be.