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Wireless Network Primer and Tips

Ben Levitan

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Speakers are paying too much for this WiFi technology. (Prices mentioned here are for reference and you should shop around as usual.) Here are some common questions and answers to help you know how to buy better.

  1. What is WiFi? Wireless Ethernet -- WiFi is the marketing name. If you've ever hooked your computer to a high-speed Internet network with a Ethernet cable, this is the same thing but wireless.
  2. To use wireless access you simply turn on your computer and open a browser. You are on the Internet. If you have AOL, simply open AOL and set the connection to TCP/IP and use AOL as normal.
  3. If you have a laptop, you only need a WiFi card, officially known as an 802.11b card. New laptops come with this built in. Most brand name cards are less than $80. This goes in your PCMCIA slot. For Mac laptops ($99), they go under the keyboard. If you have a desktop computer, you can buy a card for your PC for about $80 too. There are attachments which connect to the USB port of your computer so you don't have to open up the computer, but if you use these you lose some capabilities, like printing to network printers.
  4. To connect to the Internet you have to find a network that has a WiFi base station connected to it. Many businesses, hotels, companies and individuals are putting up base stations because they don't have to run cables. You can have a base station (known as a wireless access point) in your house for about $140. It just plugs into your DSL or cable and allows anyone in or around your house to share your Internet connection. You can surf from your deck. (There are legal issues with selling it to your neighbors.) The area covered by a WiFi connection is called a "hotspot."
  5. To find public network (free) access go to www.80211hotspots.com or www.wififreenet.com or just put "WiFi" and "802.11" and "hotspot" into a search engine. (In Europe there are special symbols in the railroads and streets to indicate WiFi.) Many lists will come up.
  6. Many hotels use the network for their own office and you can attach to that. Many airports offer 802.11. Just turn on your computer and you'll see a small meter on your desktop if there is a "hotspot" in range (like looking for a cellular connection). Many school campuses have hotspots; most are for public use. It's considered questionable ethics to sit outside a large corporation and use their hotspot, but you will find Web sites which promote this. If your company has WiFi, consider the various security options to prevent unauthorized use.
  7. All Starbucks offer a hotspot (but some may charge a few dollars.) Boingo is company that places hotspots around the country for public use at a fee. They are reasonable and your "ID" or subscription can be used across the country. Avoid paying excessive fees for access. A hotel may charge for access. Nominal is $10 per day and $5 for a card rental.
  8. If you open your browser in a public area like an airport, you may be automatically directed to a welcome page. If this happens you are in a "controlled WiFi network." This will happen at hotels that charge for access. They will have you click an agreement to have a daily charge billed to your room. After you agree, you can browse normally. The Denver airport has a WiFi network but only requires that you provide a vaild email address. The Atlanta airport has a free area at the Budweiser Smokers Lounge (or outside if you are non-smoker.)
  9. One down side: Your printer has to be connected to a computer. If you have two computers and one has a printer, you can roam anywhere around your house and print. If you only have one computer, you have to hook up to the printer to print. There are "printer servers" which connect to your network and allow you to print, but there are mixed reports on how well they work. A good print server is as costly as a cheap computer.
  10. If you have a desktop computer and your office is upstairs but your cable is downstairs, a WiFi setup allows you to avoid running Ethernet cables. If you are concerned about security, simply apply the easy to use "WEP Encryption". Most people don't use this and probably should. I'd judge that cable modems are less secure than WiFi connections.

WiFi is the new "cool thing." If you have questions or want deep technical details, please email me. And yes, there is an 802.11a and others in development that are faster and better, but for now 802.11b is the cheapest and easiest for anyone to use.

SpeakerNet News is produced by Rebecca Morgan and Ken Braly. It is not affiliated with the National Speakers Association. Send comments or suggestions