is cheap and convenient, but take
by Alan Zisman (c)
published in Columbia
In the 1968 movie The Graduate, at a party the young university
graduate gets one word of advice: "Plastics". If the movie was being
remade today, that word might be "wireless".
I'm referring to what's sometimes called WiFi, a set of technical
specifications for wireless networking officially known as IEEE 802.11.
WiFi first started to become popular in 1999 when Apple's
Airport-branded 802.11 pushed the price of wireless networking from
over $1000 to a few hundreds dollars or so. Now, newspaper fliers from
the likes of Future Shop, Office Depot, and more are filled with a
variety of makes and models of wireless devices at increasingly
What's the attraction? More and more people have cable or DSL broadband
Internet setups and want to connect multiple computers. If they're all
in one room it's generally not a big deal to run networking cable along
the baseboards to connect them all together. But stringing cable to the
basement or the upstairs bedroom is another matter. WiFi, promising a
range of about 50 meters, makes the cabling unnecessary; the added
convenience make many people willing to pay the price premium for
wireless. Besides, there's the dream of being able to connect your
laptop to the Internet while sitting in the sun in the yard. And then
you can connect your laptop to other wireless networks, at University
or perhaps in your local cafe.
You'll need a wireless base station (also known as access point or
router) to connect to your cable or DSL modem and a wireless adapter
for each computer. There are PCMCIA cards for laptops, internal PCI
cards for desktops, or external USB adapters that can attach to both
laptops and desktops. Macs made since 1999 or so require Apple's
Airport or Airport Extreme adapters, though they can then connect to
any standard base station. Installation is relatively straightforward.
Because 802.11 is a standard, in theory you should be able to mix base
stations and adapters from different manufacturers and you can mix PCs
and Macs on the same network. There are a few things to note, however.
Two different WiFi standards are commonly available. 802.11b is a
slower standard that is still widely sold (at lower prices). It can be
mixed with the newer, faster 802.11g devices, though in many cases a
mixed network will run at slower speeds. (These slower speeds are still
plenty adequate for Internet access). Some models promise still-faster
Turbo modes; these non-standard modes will only work connecting to
hardware of the the same brand. (There's also a less-common 802.11a
standard that doesn't connect to "b" or "g" devices).
Be aware that if it's easy for you to sit in your back yard and use
your Internet service it's also easy for your neighbours to access your
Internet connection. Maybe you don't care; that doesn't mean that they
can access the files on your hard drive (as long as you don't have file
sharing turned on with no passwords protecting it). When I took my
laptop with me on vacation this past summer, I found a number of nearby
network inadvertently (but conveniently for me!) making their Internet
If you don't want to leave your Internet connection open to nearby
freeloaders, spend a little time learning to go beyond your wireless
base station's default settings. At a minimum, change the default
network name (usually something like the brand name)_ and turn off the
setting that broadcasts that name. With those changes, your network
won't offer itself to anyone in the neighbourhood. Consider turning on
encryption, so even if an outsider does try to connect, they'll need to
know a (long!) pass-phrase.