Business-like, isn't he?



Columbia Journal

    Wireless is cheap and convenient, but take care!

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Columbia Journal January 2005

    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 affordable prices.

    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 connections available.

    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.


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at