Choosing Hardware (Wireless) Part 1

Browse the aisles of your favorite electronics store, and you will find a dizzying number of equipment choices at all price levels. You’ve got to choose between the various 802.11 standards, whether you need a router or an access point, which brand to buy, and which optional features you want. Did you need wired ports? So many choices, what do you do?

In this topic, you find out what hardware you need to get on the Internet and to build your wireless network. After you read this topic, you can confidently make a purchase. You’ll also want to make sure your Internet connection is up to par. You are likely to have a few Internet access options available to you, so you’ll want to make sure you know what each option offers.

The information in this topic can help you form the foundation of your wireless network, so the best place to start is where the Internet meets your house.

Exploring Your Options: DSL or Cable

If you watch television for a while, you can see lots of ads for Internet access. Several companies are vying for your business, and they’re all offering something slightly different. How do you cut through this noise and buy the right product for you?

Before you get much further on the topic, though, your decision might already be made for you. Maybe you’re in a location where you’ve only got one option. Maybe you already have something. In that case, feel free to skip this section, or read on if you’re interested.

Look at the flyers that come in your mailbox or newspaper. Look at your telephone and cable bills. Chances are you’re being offered a choice between digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable. Usually both options are called "High Speed Internet," or some flavor of that. But read the fine print, it’s probably one of those. If it comes from the phone company, it’s DSL. If it comes from the cable company, it’s cable.

Depending on where you live, you might be offered a satellite service, or even a fiber-based service. You also should have the option of dial-up. So many options! My head is spinning!

All other things being equal, your decision comes down to comparing speed and cost. How fast do you need your Internet to be, and how much do you want to spend?

Sharing the road

Even though the term information superhighway died a merciful death many years back, it’s sometimes helpful to think of the Internet as a road system.

When you browse the Web, or receive e-mail, your computer sends information in the form of packets to the other end, which can be a Web server or an e-mail system. The other end looks at these packets and sends the response back to you in a new series of packets. These streams of packets are often called traffic.

It might help to think of these packets as cars on a road. Your Internet connection is a small road that can carry so many cars. This road connects to bigger roads that eventually lead to superhighways that are many lanes wide. Depending on who you’re trying to talk to, they may be located right off the highway in the case of a busy Web site, or they may be on a road much like yours in the case of a small Web site or home user.

Just like cars on a road, Internet traffic sometimes gets congested if too many cars try to use the road. Only so many cars can fit on a single lane, which means information takes longer to get between the two sides.

Dealing with DSL

DSL is an Internet service that is delivered over your regular phone line. The frequencies that make up voice fall within a small range, so a DSL modem throws the Internet signals into the space that’s left. At the phone company, these Internet signals are pulled out by a device called a DSLAM (what it means isn’t important, but it’s one of the coolest acronyms in the networking field).

The Internet goes on the higher frequencies, which means every phone jack in your house needs a filter placed on it so that you don’t hear the noise generated by the high frequencies, and your phone doesn’t affect the quality of the data transmissions.

You can choose from a wide variety of DSL, and only your Internet service provider knows which ones are being used. You can find that you usually get the appropriate DSL modem provided as part of the service, so don’t worry too much about buying one of your own. However, do make sure this is the case if you are looking at DSL. You then plug your network into the DSL modem.

The advantages of DSL are that you have a dedicated connection between your computer and the service provider, rather than sharing it with your neighbors. However, your Internet traffic eventually merges with your neighbors in the provider’s high-speed core, anyway. DSL offers good speeds, and because it’s delivered over your phone line, you can usually get a price break by bundling your DSL and phone service.

DSL is usually offered in different grades, such as 1 Mbps down and 384K up. This means you can download files at 1 million bits per second, or roughly a compact disc’s worth of files in an hour and a half. The upstream speed isn’t as important because the bulk of your Internet usage is downloading. Having 1 Mbps down is adequate for Web browsing, but having 3-5 Mbps is more desirable. (It goes up from there, so if you plan on downloading a lot of files, then look at higher plans.)

Contemplating cable

Cable-based Internet uses some TV channels for sending and receiving the Internet signals. A cable modem plugs into your TV jack, you plug your network into the cable modem, and you’re off to the races.

Cable is a shared medium, so the connection between you and the service provider is shared, usually with your neighborhood. Cable is capable of higher speeds than DSL, so this tends to even out.

Like DSL, you require a modem (but not a DSL modem). The usual practice of cable companies seems to be to charge a rental fee for the modem or to allow you to buy your own. Cable modems tend to follow only one standard called DOCSIS, so finding a compatible cable modem is easier. If you want to go down this road, ask your cable company for a list of supported modems and follow it to the letter!

Cable, too, is often sold in various grades. These grades are likely to be faster than DSL, but remember, you are sharing your connection. Usually the basic package is good enough to get you started, and you can easily upgrade later.

Don’t forget to ask about bundling opportunities if you’re a cable subscriber.

Debating dial-up

I only mention dial-up in here to tell you to avoid it. It’s slow. It doesn’t cost much less than a basic high-speed DSL or cable package. You can’t use your phone when you’re on the Internet because your computer is using it, which defeats the purpose of wireless. Did I mention it’s slow?

Just remember that both DSL and dial-up are delivered over the same phone service. Dial-up requires you to use a modem in your computer to make a call to another modem at your provider, while DSL injects the Internet signals on top of your voice calls (which you don’t notice). DSL is good, dial-up is bad.

Oh, yeah, and dial-up is slow.

Exploring FlOS or FTTH options

Depending on where you live, you might have the option of getting fiber optic cable delivered to your home. You might see it called FIOS (Fiber Optic Service) or FTTH (Fiber to the Home). Pronouncing the two might get messy, though.

Fiber optic cable can deliver a lot of speed. It’s reliable, too. This extra speed will cost from "slightly more than cable" to "a lot more than cable," depending on how fast you want to go. But, if the option is available to you, it’s worth looking at. You will be able to get speeds much faster than cable or DSL. Depending on the provider of the fiber, you may be able to get better entertainment offerings, such as high-definition television and video on demand over the same fiber.

Going over the Letters

Getting set up with Internet access (if you don’t have it already) takes a few days, which gives you time to think about the kind of wireless network you want.

The eggheads . . . I mean engineers . . . at the IEEE have been improving wireless standards to make them faster and more reliable. The IEEE 802.11 standards describe how wireless signals are transmitted and decided and in traditional geeky fashion have names such as 802.11a, 802.11b, and so forth. Over 20 standards exist in the 802.11 family, although consumer products only advertise support for a handful of them.

The Original — 802.11

The first one didn’t have a letter after it, but it provided 1 or 2 megabit service at 2.4 GHz. It worked, but given the state of industry in 1997, it was expensive and bulky. They were the size of a shoebox!

The other standards out there are amendments to 802.11.

Improving on things — 802.11a and b

Despite coming out at nearly the same time, 802.11a and 802.11b are very different. The 802.11b improves on the original standard by giving up to 11 megabits over the same 2.4 GHz frequency. This increase in speed drove adoption of 802.11b networks, which pushed manufacturers to build smaller and cheaper devices.

802.11a on the other hand runs at 54 megabits per second, and at the 5 GHz frequency. You get a lot of noise at 2.4 GHz, so the IEEE thought it best to get out of that band. There’s also more room up there, which means you can have more radios operating in the same area without stepping on each other. The downside is a slightly decreased range; indoor networks are usually rated at around 100 feet for 802.11a and at 150 feet for 802.11b. Needless to say, unless your gear has both a and b radios in them, you have to choose one or the other.

Mass market appeal and low prices made 802.11b the winner here, so you won’t find much 802.11a gear out there. The market for 802.11a is mostly companies that are willing to spend some extra money for the benefits of 802.11a.

802.11b has been superseded by 802.11g. You can still find some 802.11a gear out there if you’re buying for a company, but you’re likely not going to find it on the shelves of a store.

Giving you 1999 speeds in 2003, it’s 802.11g!

802.11g got the 2.4 GHz radios to the speed of the 5 GHz radios, only a few years later. 802.11g is also backward compatible with the b standard, so you can use an older network card on your g network, albeit at the lower speed.

There is a significant downside to running an older b radio on a g network, though, which is that the whole network’s performance is degraded even if one b radio is joined up. In the worst case you get 802.11b performance, so it’s worthwhile to upgrade any legacy 802.11b clients if you’re going to run 802.11g.

That aside, 802.11g provides good speeds, good coverage, and it’s cheap. Despite being released in 2003, this version is still current. If you look at what’s on your store shelves, or if you already have a network card, chances are it’s 802.11g (or n, but I cover that next).

802.11g is a good choice for the price conscious buyer, or the user that doesn’t need anything fancy. At 54 mbps, 802.11g is still faster than your Internet connection, and still lets you shuffle files between computers with ease. If you already have 802.11g adapters built into your laptop, then this is the most straightforward option for you.

802.11n. Or is it pre-n? Or draft 2?

As of the writing of this topic, there’s no 802.11n. Although 802.11n has been worked on for years, it’s still in draft form. But look in the stores, and you’ll see 802.11n devices for sale, how does that happen?

A patent problem with a part of 802.11n is preventing the standard from being completed.

In the meantime, an industry group called the Wi-Fi Alliance has developed a certification program for devices to ensure that they comply with draft 2.0 of the 802.11n standard. This means that any device that’s branded Wi-Fi CERTIFIED™ 802.11n draft 2.0 is interoperable with another device with the same brand. The logo is shown in Figure 2-1.

The Wi-Fi CERTIFIED® 802.11 n draft 2.0 logo.

Figure 2-1:

The Wi-Fi CERTIFIED® 802.11 n draft 2.0 logo.

A device that is certified to draft 2 of the 802.11n standard can be upgraded to the final 802.11n standard by only a change in software. I talk about upgrading your router later, but for now, just understand that if you buy a certified product, you shouldn’t have to buy anything else to upgrade once those lawyers get finished.

802.11n operates in both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, and is backward compatible to a, b, and g radios. It also doubles the range of 802.11g to 300 feet and can operate at speeds of up to 600 Mbps. That’s fast!

Behind those impressive numbers, though, is some marketing magic. You only get the benefits of 5 GHz if your equipment has 5 GHz radios (that means both your access point and wireless card). Such devices are labeled dual band, meaning that they have both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz capability. In the interests of dropping costs, though, many 802.11n devices only have the 2.4 GHz radios.

802.11n gets most of its speed from running larger channels and running them in parallel. For this to happen, the frequency has to be clear and the device has to have multiple antennas. At the 2.4 GHz range you probably have interference from other networks that causes 802.11n to degrade to smaller channels. Most consumer devices have two antennas, which is twice as good as one, but only half as good as the four that are required to get up to 600 Mbps.

It’s not all bad news for 802.11n. There are still improvements on 802.11g that make 802.11n faster than g, even in the worst case. If you have a need for speed, then 5 GHz 802.11n is where you want to be.

Another benefit to the dual band radios is that you can run your 802.11n clients in the 5 GHz range and leave the 2.4 GHz band to the 802.11b/g clients. This way you can make sure your speed-hungry devices aren’t slowed down by legacy adapters.

Compatibility concerns

Wireless devices are generally downward compatible with other devices in the same frequency. Therefore, you can mix 802.11b and 802.11g because they’re both running at 2.4 GHz, but not with 802.11a at 5 GHz.

Keep in mind that just because something’s compatible doesn’t mean that it’s going to run as well as it could. Even with an 802.11g card (54 Mbit/s, remember?), you’re limited to 11 Mbps on an 802.11b network.

When your access point’s capabilities exceed that of the clients, you still have problems. An 802.11g access point will instruct all clients to operate in a slower compatibility mode if even one 802.11b client is connected. 802.11n has some protections to prevent this problem with legacy clients but still is not as fast as an 802.11n only network.

802.11n will coexist with 802.11a, as long as you’ve got a dual band network card in your computer. This limitation isn’t too much to worry about because 802.11a network cards aren’t terribly popular.

Table 2-1 helps you make sense of the information in this section.

Table 2-1: 802.11 Frequencies, Speed, and Ranges





Should I Look at It?


2.4 GHz

1-2 Mbps




5 GHz

54 Mbps




2.4 GHz

11 Mbps



802.11 g

2.4 GHz

54 Mbps



802.11 n Draft 2t

2.4 GHz

54-300 Mbps



5 GHz

54-600 Mbps



If you go down the 802.11n path, do your best to get dual band (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) equipment.

Make sure any 802.11n gear you buy is certified by the Wi-Fi alliance. Check for the latest version of the standard.

At the moment, 802.11g provides good speed and coverage, and 802.11n expands on that. If speed is a concern, go with n. If your laptops already have a b or g radio, then consider starting out with 802.11g and then upgrading in a year or so after 802.11n is finalized and the gear comes down in price.

Purchasing a Brand Name

Go to the store and you’re going to see an assortment of products, all by different manufacturers. The first part of the selection process is finding which of these boxes have the features you want, followed by picking a manufacturer.

You’re going to see a few manufacturers, some you recognize, some you don’t. I recommend going with a name-brand product instead of a cheap, white, box knockoff, especially if you’re choosing 802.11n. Have a look for the following:

♦ Do you recognize the manufacturer? Do you see the same manufacturer being advertised by different stores? If so, chances are it’s a reputable brand that different stores are willing to stand behind. Also consider that an established brand has the resources and desire to maintain the software that makes your wireless card work.

♦ Does the manufacturer offer a toll-free support line? You may need to call for help at some point.

♦ Does the deal seem too good to be true? Cheap equipment is made cheaply.

♦ Do you see certification logos? This is your guarantee that the device will interoperate with other vendors’ equipment.

♦ Do you need to supply other parts? Read the fine print carefully; sometimes items shown on the box aren’t inside the box.

A few bucks extra on a name-brand device will almost certainly save you frustration down the road. Talk to some friends, neighbors, or coworkers to find out the brands that they like or dislike.

Routing and Bridging

You’re going to have a network in your house, and it’s going to connect to your service provider’s network. To get between networks, you have to route. These networks are connected by a device called a router. This router is the part that lets you get out on the Internet. Routers also incorporate a firewall, which is a protection mechanism from the bad guys out there on the Internet. Pretty much every wireless router out there has a built-in firewall.

If you’re connecting parts of your own network, you want to bridge. Maybe you’re making your wired network bigger by adding more ports. Maybe you’re adding a new wireless access point to an existing wireless network.

Take a look at Figure 2-2. The connection from the Internet service provider (which is drawn as a cloud, because you can’t have a good network drawing with at least one cloud) comes in to the router. Anything to the right of the router is part of the internal network. On the internal network is a device called a switch, which allows you to add wired ports to a network. One of those ports connects to an access point, which brings in the wireless computers.

Routing and bridging.

Figure 2-2:

Routing and bridging.

The router is routing between the stuff on the left and the stuff on the right. The network on the right is made up of the switch, the access point, and all the computers. The switch and the access point bridge all their connections to each other, which is how a small network grows.

Thankfully, you rarely have to worry about this because most routers you buy combine the router, the switch, and the wireless access point. If you need to connect some wired computers in, then make sure your router has enough ports, or that you’ve got an extra switch that you can connect to the router to add the ports.

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