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Understanding and Installing Wi-Fi

We've sorted through the maze of wireless options to help you decide whether--and how--to use Wi-Fi in your business.

In the past few months, Wi-Fi has been a hot topic in technology world. Publications throughout the country have hailed its abilities to eliminate cables and provide wireless Internet access for users on the go. Unfortunately, many people are confused and overwhelmed by the many different types of Wi-Fi, what equipment to purchase and how to set up a wireless network. Here, we'll cover it all. So sit back and take a deep breath--it's important to understand that jumping on the wireless bandwagon is relatively inexpensive, easy to do and extraordinarily beneficial in the long run.

It would be great if readers could simply run out to the nearest store and purchase a standard, all-inclusive Wi-Fi package; however, when it comes to technology, there is always a plethora of options making it difficult for anybody but a geek to know exactly what to get. Go to CompUSA and ask for Wi-Fi, and the salesman will likely ask "Which kind--802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11i or 802.16a?" Before punching the smirk off his face, refer to this quick reference guide for each protocol:

  • 802.11b: Running on the unregulated 2.4GHz frequency, this is the industry standard. When locations such as Starbucks, Border's Books or any of the other thousands of Wi-Fi locations advertise a wireless hotspot, they are supporting 802.11b. This version of Wi-Fi has the ability to transfer up to 11 megabits of data per second within a 300- to 500-foot radius of the wireless router.
  • 802.11a: This version of Wi-Fi runs on the unregulated 5GHz frequency and has the ability to transfer more data over the network, 54 megabits per second as compared to the 11 supported by 802.11b. However, the equipment for 802.11a (wireless router and card) is more expensive, and users have to be within 100 to 200 feet of the router, or hotspot. This technology was developed for users who needed the ability to transfer data faster than 802.11b could allow. (Note: Unless planning to transfer large files, the 11 megabits is plenty of speed for the average user. Consider that a T-1 is only capable of speeds up to 1.5 megabits per second.)
  • 802.11g: The most recent Wi-Fi flavor, 802.11g has the ability to transfer 54 megabits per second over the 2.4GHz frequency, meaning it can go faster and equally as far as 802.11b. While this version may one day replace 802.11b as the industry standard, it has not yet been approved by IEEE (the organization that creates standards and makes technologies official).
  • 802.11i: Security is a major concern with Wi-Fi since it is relatively easy to snatch wireless data out of the air and decode it. 802.11i is currently in the works and forecasted to be the "secure" model of 802.11b.
  • 802.16a: Very different from the other versions of Wi-Fi, 802.16a operates on both the unregulated 5GHz frequency as well as the FCC-regulated 3GHz frequency, which means that it may cost money to use. Once perfected, 802.16a is touting the ability to transfer high bandwidth speeds up to three miles away from the wireless base station/router. This is the Wi-Fi technology of the future.

Equipment Needed
Now that you have a better understanding of the different types of Wi-Fi, let's discuss the equipment necessary to deploy a wireless network. Assuming you will install the standard 802.11b network, there are two necessary pieces of equipment: a wireless router and a wireless card.

Attaching directly to your pre-existing broadband Internet router, the wireless router acts as a bridge for wireless computers by allowing them to connect to the Internet seamlessly, as if connected to the router directly by an Ethernet cable. If you have multiple computers on a network, adding the wireless router will not disrupt anything. You can either plug the wireless router in to a port on the hub along with the other hard-wired computers, or you can plug it in to the existing router and plug these computers into the ports provided, making the wireless router act as a hub. The Microsoft Broadband Networking Wireless Base Station ACCS is a popular 802.11b wireless router and sells for $99.99. Installation is very simple.

In order for a computer to pick up the wireless signal being passed through the air from the router, you must have a wireless card. For laptop users, this card fits directly into the PC/MCI card slot. For PCs, the wireless adapter fits into a slot on the motherboard. The Netgear MA701NA 802.11b Wireless CompactFlash Card is a personal favorite and sells for $69.99. Once again, installation is a cake walk, requiring nothing more than plug-and-play.

Even if it seems premature to install a wireless network at your home or business, you should consider purchasing a wireless card to keep on hand in your laptop bag--hotspots are popping up around the country, keeping business travelers connected on the go. This card is the key to connectivity in hotels, conference rooms and cafes.

Joel Holland, 25, is the founder and CEO of Footage Firm in Reston, Va.

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