Troubleshooting Wireless Performance Problems

In a recent business organization meeting, I found myself in a group of small business owners discussing wireless networking. The group members had the usual litany of complaints and concerns, and in my role as the token computer "expert" I gave them my basic lecture on securing and properly configuring their wireless networks. Although the basic lecture addressed the concerns that the group had been lamenting, two of the business owners cornered me later in the day and started asking about their perceived performance problems. Both business owners had moved from wired networks to wireless and were concerned because the 54Mbps wireless connection seemed slower than the 10Mbps hard-wired networks that they had replaced. Both had similar stories: They believed that they were sufficiently computer-savvy to handle the network upgrade themselves, they had between 15 and 20 client computers, and they had gone to the local electronics superstore to buy the equipment that they needed to upgrade their networks. I agreed to call the owners at their respective businesses because the questions I needed to ask to diagnose their problems required that they have the hardware in front of them. As is often the case, they were both suffering from almost the same set of problems. They had been careful about setting up security and access controls on their wireless networks and had carefully followed the manufacturer's directions. If they weren't sure about a question, they let the manufacturer's default setting stand while configuring the network, which meant that both networks were running in mixed mode, attempting to support both 802.11g and 802.11b. One of the men was able to simply reconfigure his network to 802.11g only, which he claimed gave him an immediate performance improvement; the other was concerned because the built-in wireless technology in his rather expensive notebook was 802.11b. I gave him a few options to consider, of which he took the simplest: He bought an 802.11g PC Card to use in the office and saved the built-in networking for home. The second problem that both businesses had came to light when I asked the owners to inventory their computer hardware. Although their networking equipment was brand new, their computers weren't, and both, for reasons of simplicity, had elected to use USB-connected wireless devices to bring their computers into the wireless world. After walking them through how to use Device Manager, neither was happy to learn that at least half their computers would need a different wireless connectivity method to obtain the speed available to their 802.11g networks. Apparently the electronics superstore salesmen had neglected to mention that connecting a 54Mbps wireless card to an interface that runs at 12Mbps (USB 1.x speed) would result in a connection that couldn't take advantage of the network's performance. Both men were quick to grasp the concept that all USB devices aren't created equal, but neither was happy to hear that they would need to open the cases and install cards. I did suggest that rather than installing wireless networking cards, they install inexpensive USB 2.0 add-in cards so that they could use their existing wireless network adapters and have potential for future growth. What bothered them wasn't the prospect of spending the money, it was the necessity to open up half their computers and install new hardware and drivers. Both asked if I would do the upgrades; neither was willing to pay my hourly rate. I sent them to a local PC repair shop I've dealt with that has PC techs who make house calls.

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