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Why Wi-Fi?
by rob

Wi-Fi is short for Wireless Fidelity but it's really a blanket term for any Wireless Local Area Networking. When you're on a wireless network, you can connect to other computers, printers and even the Internet with no physical connections up to 150 feet. Currently there are three main standards for Wi-Fi: 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11a.

Alphabet Soup
802.11b is the most widely used standard; it is used in many corporate installations and HotSpots found in airports, coffee shops, and hotels. It sends data at 11 Mbps over the crowded 2.4 GHz radio frequency. The more cordless phones, baby monitors, and microwave ovens you have near your wireless network, the more interference will degrade your bandwidth.

802.11g is the high-speed successor to 802.11b. 802.11g sends data at up to 54 Mbps and it is backward-compatible with 802.11b since it runs on the 2.4 GHz frequency. This is the ideal choice for new wireless LANs or building on to pre-existing 802.11b networks.

802.11a provides data rates of up to 54 Mbps but is less popular because of the cost of hardware and relatively short range. 802.11a operates on a less crowded 5 GHz radio frequency meaning that you'll get less interference. Since 802.11a runs on a different frequency, it is incompatible with 802.11b and 802.11g hardware.

How fast is fast enough?
If you're using your network to access the Internet through DSL or a cable modem, the max you'll get out of your Internet connection is between 1 and 1.5 Mbps, so the difference between 11 and 54 Mbps won't benefit you. On the other hand, if you're playing games like Unreal Tournament 2003 on your wireless network, you won't want your action to lag or you might get fragged.

  Bandwidth Frequency Range Interference Risk HotSpot Access
802.11b 11 Mbps 2.4 GHz 150 feet High Excellent
802.11g 54 Mbps 2.4 GHz 150 feet High Excellent
802.11a 54 Mbps 5 GHz 100 feet Low Poor

What do I need to set it up?
Each computer you want to connect needs a wireless adapter. Many newer notebooks have wireless built-in but if you have a notebook without it, add a wireless PC Card. For desktops, you can add a PCI card or just plug in a USB adapter. To get everyone talking together, you'll need an access point. This acts as a hub for your network. Access points often include an Ethernet interface so you can add wireless devices to an existing wired network.

A broadband router (also known as broadband gateway) is the gear you'll need if you want to access the Internet wirelessly. It acts as an access point for your devices and might have an Ethernet interface to boot. Some routers even come in dual-band flavors that use both 2.4 GHz (802.11b and 802.11g) and 5 GHz (802.11a) frequencies.

When placing your access point, keep in mind that every wall and ceiling that your signal has to go through will make your bandwidth suffer. Also, depending on what your building is made of, your network may cover a floor above and below your access point. That means one access point can cover a one- or two-story house. If you need to cover more area than about 20,000-square-feet, you can overlap access points to extend the reach of the wireless signal.

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