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Home Network Tutorial

 

Wireless Networking at a Glance


A wireless network, such as one you create with a Wireless (802.11x) Cable/DSL Internet Gateway product, is a collection of one or more computers, printers, and other devices that use radio waves instead of Ethernet cables to create communication links to one another and to other networks.  Many networks will contain both wireless and wired (predominantly Ethernet cable) connections.

The base stations and adapters that create wireless network connections are designed to follow one of the 802.11 radio transmission standards developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The most popular versions of these standards are often referred to as Wi-Fi®. with a new security feature called WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) an interim standard that will be replaced by the
IEEE’s 802.11i standard when it is completed.
 


Wireless Transmission Standards

Currently, four specifications make up the 802.11 series: 802.11, 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g. The products that conform to the 802.11g specification are sometimes said to use Wireless-G technology, and the products that conform to the 802.11b specification are said to use Wireless-B.  Wireless-A technology is primarily a radio frequency upgrade from Wireless-G.  It is the newest wireless technology, with the main advantage of not being susceptible to interference from cordless telephones.

The main features that distinguish these specifications are connection speed and radio frequency.  The following table summarizes the four specifications in the 802.11 series.

Specification Connection Speed Radio Frequency
802.11 1 or 2 Mbps
obsolete
2.4 GHz
802.11b 5.5 and 11 Mbps
22 Mbps with Acceleration
2.4 GHz
802.11g Up to 54 Mbps
108 Mbps with Acceleration
2.4 GHz
802.11a Up to 54 Mbps
75 Mbps with Acceleration
5 GHz

In use, wireless performance is defined by another characteristic in addition to connection speed – range. Wireless networks can transmit through walls and floors at speeds of up to 54 Mbps.  However, actual range and speed will vary depending on such factors as the number and size of the physical barriers within the network, and any interference to the radio transmission.

Wireless Network Types

There are two types of wireless network that you can set up by using wireless Broadband networking products – infrastructure networks and ad hoc (computer-to-computer or peer-to-peer) networks.

Infrastructure network
In an infrastructure network, a base station, gateway, or router acts as a central point between two or more wireless devices.  Often these devices will share a broadband Internet connection. Each wireless device must have an adapter that can connect to the base station or another available wireless access point.

Ad hoc (computer-to-computer) networks
In an ad hoc wireless network, wireless devices can connect to each other directly, without an intermediary device such as a base station, gateway, or router.  This option is suitable if you’re connecting only two or three computers that are not trying to share an Internet connection.

When to choose wireless?

Wireless and wired networks both offer a number of benefits.  Before you decide which connection type is best for your network, consider the following factors:

  • Convenience:  You can set up wireless connections without having to run cables or open computer cases.  If your computers already have Ethernet connections, however, your can keep the wired Ethernet network in place and expand the network as necessary using wireless products.

  • Cost:  Until recently, wireless network hardware cost more than Ethernet hardware. The rapidly decreasing cost of wireless products has made wireless home network the new standard. 

  • Mobility:  The mobility of wireless technology is a major advantage for laptop or notebook computers, allowing you to use network resources from any rooms in your house.

  • Range and coverage:  Both wireless networks and wired networks can cover most home and small-business areas.  Interference factors such as cordless telephones or industrial equipment in your environment may be deciding factors in choosing one technology over the other.

  • Security:  Along with the freedom and flexibility of wireless technology, comes inherent security risks.  Anyone with compatible hardware can access your network from outside your home or office unless you properly implement the built in security features, such Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) Protected Access  (WPA) or Wired Equivalent Protocol (WEP) and firewall security features like Network Address Translation (NAT).  .

  • Speed:  Since all of the networks discussed here are faster than the wide area connections currently available for Internet connections, the type of network that you choose will not affect your Internet access speed.  It can affect the speed with which you can perform local activities such as printing, transferring files and playing interactive games between computers on your local network. Wireless 802.11g connection speed is comparable to Fast Ethernet; 802.11b connection speed is comparable to the original 10Mbps Ethernet, significantly slower.  If connection speed between your networked computers is of primary importance (particularly for playing games with dense graphic detail), you might want to opt for Wireless-G technology with 54 to 108 Mbps or Fast Ethernet with 100Mbps.

Networks for the Home & Small Business

There are many good choices available today for home and small office networks.  They come in a range of prices and performance in both wired and wireless configurations.  The performance, cost, and ease of use has made today's wireless networks the first choice for most new home network installations or expansions.

The Ethernet Family

Ethernet® network technology is currently the most popular home and small business networking solution. It comes in three main speeds all of which are available and affordable for home networking — 10 Mbps, 100 Mbps, and now just taking off is 1000 Mbps.  It comes in a number of wiring topologies, but IEEE 10BaseT is the most common.  That stands for 10 Mbps over twisted pair wires of 100 meters or less in length.  Coaxial Thickwire (10Base5 - up to 500 meters) and Thinwire (10Base2 - up to 200 meters) were also popular until the mid 1990's.

For small and medium-sized networks (fewer than eight users), the only drawback to Ethernet is the need to run wires from computer to computer, and to crimp on the RJ45 connectors.  Up to 100 meters of Category 4 (CAT 4) cable can be run per connection with little or no slowdown in data transfer speed.  CAT 4 cabling certifies a cabling system to carry data at frequencies up to 20MHz.  Anyone installing Ethernet today would likely use CAT 5 or better components so that they could upgrade to 100Mbps Fast Ethernet without new cabling.  With 10 Mbps, you could transfer several multimedia files at once with minimal delays.  10 Mbps Ethernet technology is fast enough for sharing of a High Speed Internet service using DSL and Cable modems. 

If you are lucky, you might find that your home or office is pre-wired for Ethernet or even Fast Ethernet.  If all or even most of your computers are in the one room, some form of Ethernet is the automatic choice.  It will be slightly cheaper, somewhat more secure, and possibly even faster that a wireless solution.

Fast Ethernet

Fast Ethernet is based on the IEEE 100BaseT standard, and it is the most popular network for most business installations.  That stands for 100 Mbps over twisted pair wires of 100 meters or less in length.  However many business networks are starting to experiment with wireless 802.11* technology.  For small networks, Fast Ethernet has the same drawback as standard Ethernet -- the need to run wires to connect all of your computers. Like Ethernet, you can run up to 100 meters of Category 5 (Cat 5) or Category 5 enhanced (Cat 5e) wires per connection with little or no slowdown in data transfer speed.  CAT 5 and CAT 5e are cabling standards which certifies cabling systems to carry traffic at frequencies up to 100MHz.  New installations of Fast Ethernet may consider installing CAT 6 cable components to be ready for an upgrade to Gigabit Ethernet.

With 100 Mbps, data transfer speed you can share many large multimedia files at once with ) will no noticeable delay.  It is almost as though they are on your local computer.

 At 100 megabits per second (Mbps), Fast Ethernet is easily fast enough to handle a broadband Internet connection and still move plenty of local data — you can download high-definition movie trailers while someone else works on the family digital photo album through the network without frustration.

Gigabit Ethernet

IEEE 1000BaseT network technology, commonly called Gigabit Ethernet — is the fastest networking available for general use in a home or business network.  The "M" in Mbps stands for mega (millions) of bits per second.  Therefore, 1000 x 1,000,000 is a billion bits per second or the Latin "giga" or 1 gigabit per second.  That is 10 ten times faster than the the popular standard 100 Mbps Fast Ethernet.

Gigabit Ethernet hubs and switches (the equipment used to inter-connect all the computers on your network) are still quite expensive by today's standards.  The 1000BaseT standard comes complete with a new Category 6 (CAT 6) cabling standard that certifies cabling systems to carry traffic at frequencies up to 250MHz.  The wires that run from each computer to the hubs or switches is also more expensive that CAT 5.  Only a few applications today, such as film editing and digital imaging, work with data files large enough to warrant the cost of gigabit networks.  For the rest of us, 100 Mbps is plenty fast enough and gigabit technology just isn't worth the extra cost.  Many new computers today come standard with Gigabit Ethernet adapters built in, right on the motherboard.  One great thing about that is that they are compatible with both 100 Mbps and 10 Mbps networks.

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802.11b

802.11 includes a range of technology used for wireless home and office networking. It's the technology many people mean when they say "wireless" or "Wi-Fi®" (Wired-Fidelity).  Do not confuse Wi-Fi with FireWire®, which is a high speed (400Mbps) wired technology used for video and imaging connections.  Bluetooth® technology is another type of wireless connection, but it is a lower speed, and less expensive technology designed for wireless connections from printers, mice, and PDAs to your PC.  802.11 technology is usually easier to install than an Ethernet network, primarily because there are no wires, however, configuring the equipment may take longer.

Usually, the promised 11 Mbps speed ends up in the 2.5-4 Mbps range. That's still generally fast enough for access to a broadband Internet connection, but you probably won't want to be watching a DVD from the other room.  The Encryption used to secure an 802.11b network will also slow it down a bit.  But it should be up to the task of sharing files, printers, and a high speed Internet connection.  Many current laptop computers come with built-in 802.11b wireless networking technology.

It's worth noting that 802.11b operates on the 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) audio frequency, which can cause interference with 2.4 GHz cordless phones and vice versa.  Switching to a 900 MHz or 5GHz cordless phone should solve this problem.

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802.11g

The speed gains and compatibility between "b" and "g" bring up an interesting point.  In most 802.11 networks, data moves through a hardware device called an access point (also called a hub, a router, or a base station).  There are several types of access points.  If you use both 802.11b and 802.11g equipment in your network, the access point has to be 802.11g for the network to use all the speed that 802.11g allows.  The access point is the conduit between computers, so make sure it's as fast as the fastest computer on your network, if you want the speed.  So don't spend the money to upgrade one of your computers without upgrading the access point, too.

802.11a

The "a", "b", and "g" designations on wireless networks are not in a helpful order in terms of performance. First came "b" at 11 Mbps, then "g' was developed at 54Mbps.  Finally the "a" series came along at a new faster frequency and transfer speed.  802.11g moves data at 54 Mbps, which is significantly faster than 802.11b. Both 802.11g and 802.11b run on the 2.4 GHz frequency.
 

802.11a is a technology upgrade to 802.11b, that operates at 5 GHz audio frequency so you can't run both of them on the same network unless you use the new multi-frequency devices that support all three standards (a, b, and g). 

A good rule of thumb with "latest and greatest" high-speed technology of any kind is don't spend the money for the new latest technology unless you have reached the limits of your current network.  Technology prices always tends to drop over time, so just buy what you need today.  If you're setting up your very first network, 802.11b wireless may still be worth considering. But if you already have five power users on your network, you will want to go with 802.11g, and 802.11a will soon be feasible.

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Technology Speed Wireless Cost

 Ethernet

  10 Mbps

No Very Low

Fast Ethernet

 10 or 100 Mbps

 No

 Low

Gigabit Ethernet

 1,000 Mbps

 No

 Very high

802.11b

 11 Mbps

 Yes

 Medium

802.11g

 54 Mbps

 Yes

 Medium

802.11a

 54 Mbps

 Yes

 Higher

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How Much Must You Spend?

For budget conscious, you can't be the cost of Ethernet technology.  Many people move all of their computers into one room to avoid the wiring hassles of high speed internet sharing.  But even for small networks that is not always practical.  An Ethernet network should normally cost under $100 per computer, and even less if your computers came with network cards installed.  Additional cables, and a hub, switch or router to connect your Ethernet network generally total less than $100.  On the other end of the cost spectrum, many new buildings and houses come with Ethernet wiring already inside the walls, terminating in a central wiring closet.  But you can't beat the freedom and ease of installing a wireless network.

Wireless networks cost about $100 plus $50-$100 per node.

You can build an Ethernet network with just two computers, a pair of Ethernet adapters and a special wire called a cross-over cable.  It works like a null modem cable for serial port connections.  It crosses the transmit cable pair over to the receive pair for the other computer so that they can communicate.  When you have more than two computers (or nodes) to connect, then you need a hub, switch, or router.  If you decide to go wireless, you need one or more access points, depending on where they will be placed, the distances spanned and any radio interference that may exist.  You should search the Web for an idea about pricing and deals available before you buy.  You can usually save money by buying online when you know what you want and need, but a local retail store can be a better source of information when you're not sure, and much easier for returns if you make a mistake. 

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Last modified: April 11, 2008