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108Mbps Wireless Ethernet: Better, Faster, Stronger?

During the past year, I've received quite a few reader requests for information about the 108Mbps wireless Ethernet offerings currently available. I had planned to cover some of the technologies, but the release of Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP 2) caused compatibility problems with many of the devices so I decided to hold off for a bit to give vendors time to release updated drivers and fixes for their products.

In the preholiday season, the requests for information about 108Mbps wireless Ethernet started again, so I finally picked up a router and a set of client devices--PC Card, NIC, and USB device) to see what the hoopla was about.

After installing the 108Mbps devices, I tried to connect to legacy 802.11b (11Mbps) and current 802.11g (54Mbps) networks. Backward-compatibility worked fine on these older standards, even with wireless routers from different vendors.

Setting up an end-to-end 108Mbps network resulted in a noticeable performance improvement when pulling large files off of my network when compared with the 54Mbps network, but performance still wasn't as good as the wired 100Mbps connection. I had expected this result because overhead on a wireless network is significantly greater than on a wired network.

Internet access performance was unaffected, regardless of network type, because the throttling point is the net connection--which in my office rarely exceeds 3Mbps--not the local network.

In day-to-day use, 108Mbps wireless Ethernet technology showed no clear advantage. Although a noticeable speed difference exists between 802.11b and 802.11g, doubling the 802.11g speed didn't seem to make the network any faster.

However, there was one advantage that might make the entire 108Mbps technology worthwhile to many users: The coverage area of the 108Mbps router was significantly better than that of the 802.11g router, even when used only for G connections. Areas of my office that were unreliable for wireless connectivity suddenly had a decent signal strength and reliable wireless network access.

So would I pull out an existing 802.11g network to use the faster technology? Not at this point, but if I was adding wireless connectivity from scratch or upgrading an 802.11b network, the 108Mbps technologies are worth considering.

On a related wireless note, I recently found myself doing some unintentional war driving, which is the practice of driving around looking for wireless networks. While slipping my PDA into its car mount (I was using it to play music in the car), I accidentally enabled the device's internal 802.11b wireless networking capabilities. You can imagine my surprise when, while driving through a residential neighborhood close to home, I was alerted to the presence of no less than a dozen wireless networks over a distance of about a mile.

Now I realize that many people don't disable broadcast notification of their wireless networks, but half of these networks were still using the default network name (linksys) and, as I found when I pulled over to check, were unsecured and allowed me Internet access via their networks.

I didn't try accessing the administrative functions of the open routers, but my experience has shown that when wireless routers are left in the default state, the owners usually don't bother to change the administrative password on the device, either.

I wonder how many of those home networks were used to connect to corporate networks via VPNs. If you use VPN access to let your remote users access corporate network resources, have you explained to these users how to secure their home networks? It's worth your time and effort.

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