About Wireless LANsPopular WLAN technologies all follow one of the three main Wi-Fi communication standards. The benefits of wireless networking depend on the standard employed:
- 802.11b was the first standard to be widely used in WLANs.
- The 802.11a standard is faster but more expensive than 802.11b; 802.11a is more commonly found in business networks.
- The newest standard, 802.11g, attempts to combine the best of both 802.11a and 802.11b, though it too is more a more expensive home networking option.
InstallationWi-Fi networks can be configured in two different ways:
- "Ad hoc" mode allows wireless devices to communicate in peer-to-peer mode with each other.
- "Infrastructure" mode allows wireless devices to communicate with a central node that in turn can communicate with wired nodes on that LAN.
Most LANs require infrastructure mode to access the Internet, a local printer, or other wired services, whereas ad hoc mode supports only basic file sharing between wireless devices.
Both Wi-Fi modes require wireless network adapters, sometimes called WLAN cards. Infrastructure mode WLANs additionally require a central device called the access point. The access point must be installed in a central location where wireless radio signals can reach it with minimal interference. Although Wi-Fi signals typically reach 100 feet (30 m) or more, obstructions like walls can greatly reduce their range.
CostWireless gear costs somewhat more than the equivalent wired Ethernet products. At full retail prices, wireless adapters and access points may cost three or four times as much as Ethernet cable adapters and hubs/switches, respectively. 802.11b products have dropped in price considerably with the release of 802.11g, and obviously, bargain sales can be found if shoppers are persistent.
ReliabilityWireless LANs suffer a few more reliability problems than wired LANs, though perhaps not enough to be a significant concern. 802.11b and 802.11g wireless signals are subject to interference from other home applicances including microwave ovens, cordless telephones, and garage door openers. With careful installation, the likelihood of interference can be minimized.
Wireless networking products, particularly those that implement 802.11g, are comparatively new. As with any new technology, expect it will take time for these products to mature.
PerformanceWireless LANs using 802.11b support a maximum theoretical bandwidth of 11 Mbps, roughly the same as that of old, traditional Ethernet. 802.11a and 802.11g WLANs support 54 Mbps, that is approximately one-half the bandwidth of Fast Ethernet. Furthermore, Wi-Fi performance is distance sensitive, meaning that maximum performance will degrade on computers farther away from the access point or other communication endpoint. As more wireless devices utilize the WLAN more heavily, performance degrades even further.
Overall, the performance of 802.11a and 802.11g is sufficient for home Internet connection sharing and file sharing, but generally not sufficient for home LAN gaming.
The greater mobility of wireless LANs helps offset the performance disadvantage. Mobile computers do not need to be tied to an Ethernet cable and can roam freely within the WLAN range. However, many home computers are larger desktop models, and even mobile computers must sometimes be tied to an electrical cord and outlet for power. This undermines the mobility advantage of WLANs in many homes.
SecurityIn theory, wireless LANs are less secure than wired LANs, because wireless communication signals travel through the air and can easily be intercepted. To prove their point, some engineers have promoted the practice of wardriving, that involves traveling through a residential area with Wi-Fi equipment scanning the airwaves for unprotected WLANs. On balance, though, the weaknesses of wireless security are more theoretical than practical. WLANs protect their data through the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption standard, that makes wireless communications reasonably as safe as wired ones in homes.
No computer network is completely secure and homeowners should research this topic to ensure they are aware of and comfortable with the risks. Important security considerations for homeowners tend to not be related to whether the network is wired or wireless but rather ensuring:
- the home's Internet firewall is properly configured
- the family is familiar with the danger of Internet "spoof emails" and how to recognize them
- the family is familiar with the concept of "spyware" and how to avoid it
- babysitters, housekeepers and other visitors do not have unwanted access to the network