Welcome to the Wireless Generation - 14 Jun 2001

Proxim's 1.6Mbps Symphony products offer an adequate solution for home users who want simply to share a wireless Internet connection. Proxim has upgraded its products to conform to the HomeRF standard, but they're still 1.6Mbps and I don't think that's enough, especially if you want to do any network file sharing (HomeRF will run at 10Mbps). The 802.11b networking offers a number of advantages over a HomeRF solution. In addition to its much faster speed of 11Mbps, 802.11b-based networks can be configured in various ways that make them more appealing than other wireless solutions.

Over the past few months, I've spoken with people from different companies about wireless solutions, and I'll be covering some of those solutions, such as Ricochet, in future columns. One of the most helpful people I spoke with is Barb Bowman, a product development manager for AT&T Broadband Northeast (she was Microsoft's first Geek of the Week

following the Windows 2000 launch last year). Bowman spends a portion of her time testing hardware and software products for compatibility and interoperability with a variety of OSs and specifically with AT&T broadband connections. She walked me through several 802.11b set-ups on a variety of systems and offered her unparalleled level of experience with almost every available 802.11b product, both for consumers and businesses. And because she isn't tied to any one vendor's success, her opinions carry weight.

More than 2 years ago, I started with early generation wireless, she told me. So I've been on the bleeding edge of the technology, watching for its application to broadband as products have been developed. I've been working with 802.11b since day one and have seen nearly all of the technologies and products that have been in development over the past few years.

Here's what we looked at. Generally speaking, homes and businesses have had to be wired for networking and connection sharing. This approach creates a system that's fast and reliable. However, setup is time-consuming, and the system can be difficult to debug when problems occur—often because of physical access. Wireless seems to offer a perfect solution to this nightmare, but wireless has its own problems: Wireless connections are generally slower than wired connections, although, an 11Mbps wireless connection, given its freedom, is a fine trade-off for the 100Mb Ethernet I'm used to. Wireless is still range-limited although not to the degree it once was (I tested the technology at ranges of 150 feet or more from the connection point, through walls and ceilings, without falling back to the built-in 5.5Mbps or 2Mbps rates that are also available). And because configuration is so much easier these days, corporations can simply sprinkle connection points around a building, and users will seamlessly connect to the connection point with the strongest signal.

The next issue is security. Wireless security is often misunderstood and generally mishandled. Microsoft is solving that problem in Windows XP (which I'll cover in a future column), but current 802.11b set-ups, if configured properly, provide adequate security for both home and work.

Currently, configuring 802.11b on Win2K is as simple as plugging in a network card, installing the drivers, pointing the driver to the correct connection point (or specifying any or its equivalent), and configuring security if desired. For corporate use, 802.11b can use an encrypted connection between each network card and connection point, and most vendors supply an interface through which you can specify an encrypted connection to several connection points. Encryption slows the connection somewhat, but it's obviously a decent trade-off.

Typically, the connection point is the most expensive component of a wireless set up, with a price now in the $300 range (far below the $1000 price of a year ago). This device sits between your network and your wireless devices and provides bridging and, optionally, Network Address Translation (NAT) capabilities so that your wireless computers can browse your local network and share your Internet connection. At home, for example, I have a cable modem that's connected to a Linksys broadband router. This device supplies NAT services to my home network, which connects to the router with an 8-port 100Mbps switch. I have wired Ethernet connections to this switch—to three desktops and those laptops that have port replicators or docking stations—and now, two wireless connection points, which connect the network to laptops using wireless networking cards.

And 802.11b offers some interesting benefits to home users: In many cases, you can forego the connection point altogether. Today, 802.11b networks can run in infrastructure mode, in which you would use a connection point (with or without NAT), or ad hoc mode, in which you don't need a connection point. Two wireless card-enabled laptops could see each other and share files in ad hoc mode, and if one laptop is connected to your Internet connection through another network card, the other laptop can share the Internet connection as well. This feature drops the price of wireless networking dramatically because these cards generally cost about $125 to $150 apiece.

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