Wireless: The Internet Where You Want It to Be

Late last summer, I bought a Proxim Symphony wireless solution for my home network, discovered I needed Windows 98 to configure it, and promptly relegated it to the pile of electronic detritus that decorates the corner of my office. Like many of you, I have a pretty serious setup at home, something that is so far beyond the statistical norm it'd be funny if it hadn't cost me so much. A cable/DSL router mans my cable modem connection. The router connects to a 100Mbps switch and the rest of my network, currently three desktops and two laptops. But the limiting factor is that all of the machines are in the same room: I've never gotten around to wiring the whole house for Ethernet. And over the past several months, my thoughts have turned again and again to a wireless solution as an alternative, given my reliance on Internet connectivity. So 2 weeks ago, I finally got everything hooked up. I can't believe I waited this long.

In the case of the Proxim Symphony setup I'm using, a few limitations are evident, chief among them the requirement that you use Win98 to set up the hardware that connects your wireless devices (typically laptops, but you could connect desktop machines as well) to the wired network. Proxim calls the connection device a Cordless Gateway, which is a descriptive enough name. (Unfortunately, the Cordless Gateway costs about $300—and you still must shell out $100 to $150 per wireless network card.)

In any event, I installed a copy of Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me) on one of the laptops and proceeded to install and configure the Cordless Gateway. The process worked well: You connect the Cordless Gateway to the switch (or hub, as is generally the case at home) and then configure it for DHCP or hard-coded IP addresses, along with a few other settings. After you configure the Cordless Gateway, you can install the wireless cards under Windows 2000, but Proxim offers only drivers for Win2K, not the configuration software. On the other hand, you should need to configure the Cordless Gateway only once. Then, it just works.

And work it does: I've tested the device (using MP3 music streamed from a home server and Web access) from every corner of my house and property and never lost the connection. The speeds? Web browsing and email are just fine, with no discernable difference from the wired network, but network browsing is too slow. The Proxim Symphony offers a 1.6Mbps connection, and I'm sure that's the culprit. I can play music from my media server and it streams just fine, so the solution's not useless. And honestly, getting Internet access was the primary goal.

However, overall speed is definitely a problem. Therefore, if you're looking into wireless for a serious setup at home or for work, I recommend that you move directly to a product based on the 802.11 wireless LAN standard, which offers an 11Mbps connection at comparable prices. More importantly, 802.11 can be used in larger areas, so it's appropriate for the workplace as well as home (802.11 is currently in use in airports, and soon will be in Starbucks coffee houses around the country, courtesy of a deal with Microsoft).

A couple of anecdotes about my suddenly wireless world: Since I installed the Proxim Symphony, I haven't set foot in my office for more than 5 minutes at a time. I've gone there to burn a few CDs, and one time before a trip, I copied data over to a laptop using the wired connection to decrease the time it would take. I actually installed Office 2000 Service Release 1a (SR1a) over the wireless network to a laptop. It took more than an hour (for an operation that normally takes 5 to 10 minutes using a custom install script).

But I made one deadly mistake with the network, which involved (of course) my email. When I first tested the connection, I shut down Outlook on my main desktop and loaded it on one of the laptops, testing my connection to the email servers as I walked around the house. That complete, I repeated the sequence with the second laptop. The process worked fine both times, and I used a laptop—wirelessly—for email over the next week and a half. But I started getting inquiries from friends and coworkers about lost mail: Had I gotten that important email they'd sent? How come I hadn't replied to a message?

On a trip to New York, I suddenly realized what might have happened; when I got home, my worst fears were exceeded. When I had shut down Outlook on my main desktop the first time, it had silently crashed, but outlook.exe still ran in the background. Worse yet, Outlook had also crashed on the first laptop I tested, with identical results. For 10 days, Outlook downloaded email to three machines, but I was only using one. I had missed hundreds of email messages. (Outlook: Can't live with it, can't live without.)

Although I still haven't caught up on my email since the Outlook fiasco, I'm sold on wireless. I just wish I had waited for a faster solution (i.e., 802.11) to make the change. But regardless of the method you choose, wireless opens new doors (literally: I worked from the recreation room in the basement the other day; I'm ready for spring) and points the way to a pervasive wireless Internet that works wherever you are. 128Kbps solutions are just now appearing, but that's just a start. Eventually, we'll all laugh about the way we used to "dial-up" to the Internet. I can't wait.

So is wireless the future? Let me know what you think.

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