Zoom into the Wireless Age

For the past few months, I've been considering adding some wireless networking capabilities to my home network. Although I've run CAT5 cabling through more than half of my house, I haven't reached a few places, due either to lack of inclination or lack of an easy route for the cable.

I noticed that prices for 802.11b (11Mbps) networking hardware had begun to drop and that access point hardware had dropped to less than $500. Then Zoom Telephonics asked if I'd be interested in looking at its ZoomAir line of 11Mbps wireless networking products. I readily agreed.

The hardware is pretty straightforward: an AP11 Access Point, which connects to my existing wired network; a Model 4105 Wireless NIC, which is the ZoomAir PC Card with an external antenna and a PCI card adapter that lets you use PC Cards (PCMCIA) in a desktop PC; and a Model 4100 Wireless NIC, which is the ZoomAir PC Card with internal antenna.

Following the ZoomAir instructions, I installed a NIC in a client machine. Setting up the NIC in a Dell Latitude notebook running Windows 2000 was simple; the system recognized the new hardware, and I followed the ZoomAir instructions for installing the drivers. I plugged in the AP11 Access Point, turned it on, and returned to the client machine. The AP11 includes a DHCP server, but it's turned off by default. I configured the client with the appropriate static IP address (any address in the 192.168.x range) and pointed a Web browser to http://192.168.0.240, the default address of the AP11 Web-based configuration and management interface. I configured the AP-provided DHCP services and provided the information needed to work with the static IP addresses in my existing network. I restarted the AP11, reconfigured the client to use DHCP, and I was done. After the AP11 was providing DHCP, I could add additional wireless NICs to the system by plugging them into the client machine.

Suddenly, my wife is borrowing my notebook to sit on the living room couch and play along with the TV trivia show she's watching. My kids, who have their own hard-wired computers, want to use the notebook so they aren't stuck in their rooms to use the Internet. And I find myself using the notebook to listen to the BBC World News over the Internet, rather than on one of the SW band radios I have around the house.

Things weren't all sweetness and light, though. I found that the music management software I use, Sonic Foundry Siren, which has been a great tool for recording and managing my music collection, didn't work smoothly over the wireless connection. Switching to Windows Media Player 7 (WMP7) actually solved the playback problem. Also, I've noticed a definite latency when browsing the wired network.

Many of you don't run networks that have an available pool of static IP addresses, so I also set up the system using a DHCP server on my wired network. I used Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) on Windows 2000 to share a satellite/modem (current one-way satellite technology from DirecPC) connection to network clients.

This setup was more problematical. Both ICS and the ZoomAir AP11 are hard coded to use the same network (192.168.0.x), which meant I couldn't use both as DHCP servers. According to the ZoomAir documentation, I can assign a static IP address to the AP11 and it will distribute the wired DHCP service to wireless clients. No matter what I did, I couldn't make this configuration work in this test scenario. Nothing I configured let the AP11 (which used the static IP address 192.168.0.240) distribute the DHCP information from the ICS box (which uses 192.168.0.1). You can't configure the AP11 to use DHCP for its own address, which might have been part of the problem. I did make this configuration work by giving the wireless client systems static IP, DNS, and gateway addresses in the 192.168.0.x range as the DHCP server would have assigned them. This approach allowed the clients full access to the local network and the Internet.

To make things a little more interesting, I installed the PC Card NIC in an older Windows 98 Micron notebook that I use to program my car (using software from http://www.carputing.com and http://www.ttspowersystems.com with a custom cable from AKM Electronics http://www.mindspring.com/~amattei/akmelect.htm that connects to the car diagnostics port). This setup let me connect to the household network and the Internet while sitting in my driveway working on the car's PCM program. I was able to access the network storage where I keep the PCM configuration files and the data that contains details about how to program the car. This approach gave me the added benefit of being able to access Web sites dedicated to the PCM programming tools and the Topica newsgroup that hosts an email discussion group dedicated to the tuning software. Certainly, not everyone will want to have a setup like this, but it gives you a good idea of the range of options that wireless home networking can give you.

The AP11 Access Point has a street price of less than $400, the wireless NICs, less than $200.

Products discussed in this review

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