Adding Wireless to Your Home Network

After you have an Internet connection, perhaps shared among several PCs on a home network, you might want to add wireless capabilities. Today, most wireless connections use a technology called Wi-Fi, the 802.11b wireless standard, which offers speeds of up to 11Mbps, although you can usually pull in speeds closer to 4Mbps to 8Mbps. During the past few years, wireless connectivity has come down in price and become much easier to install and configure.

Why add wireless capabilities to your home network? If you have a laptop, wireless connectivity is a no-brainer; this type of connection lets you use your laptop to its fullest and move freely around the house. I often use a wirelessly equipped laptop in bed, for example, to catch up on my favorite Web sites, or in the family room when watching sporting events so I can catch up on player statistics online. Although a wired connection is generally preferable for desktop PCs, wireless is a great solution if you can't run wires for some reason or if the PC in question is physically far away from the rest of the network or the Internet connection. Whatever the reason you decide to go wireless, you'll need to consider a few questions.

How will you add this capability?
First, you need to think about hardware. The simplest wireless network requires only two wireless adapters. You can place one in a PC connected to your wired network and use the other in the PC that will connect wirelessly. Such a network is called an ad hoc wireless network, and it can exist only between two PCs. So if you think you'll use more than two PCs wirelessly, you'll have to add a wireless Access Point (AP) or a wireless-enabled broadband router.

An AP is a piece of hardware that plugs into your existing network by using a standard Ethernet cable; it can add wireless networking access to several PCs. Apple Computer's AirPort was one of the earliest APs, but at $300, this device is currently too expensive to recommend. Several companies, including Linksys, D-Link Systems, and Belkin Components, offer Macintosh- and PC-compatible APs for about $100 to $200. Shop around for the best price.

If you don't already have a hardware-based broadband router or similar device or are considering upgrading your current model, you can get a wireless-enabled broadband router. These devices typically offer several services. First, they connect your home network to a broadband account, such as cable modem or DSL. Second, they typically provide one to eight Ethernet ports, so you can add PCs to a speedy, wired internal network. Finally, they offer wireless access (similar to that provided by a separate AP) either through built-in antennas or a PC Card expansion slot, which can accept a PC Card-based wireless networking card.

There are so many ways to configure a wireless network that explaining it is almost too difficult. The simplest home-networking setup with full wired and wireless capabilities uses a single broadband router with four or more Ethernet ports and integrated wireless capabilities. Or you could get complicated and use a one-port broadband router (with no wireless) connected to a four- or eight-port 100Mbps switch, which could connect to a wireless AP. Again, how you configure your network depends on what hardware you already have.

How much will it cost?
Now it's time to do some math. The least expensive wireless network will set you back about $100 to $150 and will buy you two wireless adapters (assuming that you simply want to add one PC, wirelessly, to an existing home network). Next is a wireless AP, which again could cost about $100 to $200, and you'll also need at least one wireless NIC ($50 to $100). A complete, one-piece, wireless-enabled broadband router will probably set you back about $150 to $250, depending on the model.

How will you secure your home network?
Wireless networking doesn't require much configuration, but you should configure for one thing, regardless: security. Wi-Fi is inherently not secure, and attempts to secure it through a technology called the Wired Equivalency Privacy (WEP) standard have been largely unsuccessful. So if you don't want your neighbors sharing your broadband access or, heaven forbid, accessing your local network resources, I recommend taking a slightly more proactive approach.

Configure your wireless AP (or wireless-enabled broadband router) to allow connections only from specific wireless network cards--those cards that belong to you. Fortunately, this configuration is easy to figure out because every NIC has a unique identifier called the media access control (MAC) address. The configuration will vary depending on which type of AP you use, but the theory is the same: Simply tell the AP to accept connections only from your NICs.

How you find out the MAC address for your wireless networking card varies according to your OS. In Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows NT, and Windows 9x, open a command-line window and type

ipconfig /all

and the MAC address will be listed. On Mac OS X, open System Preferences, Network, and select the AirPort card from the drop-down list. The MAC address will be listed under "Airport ID."

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