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Wireless Without Broadband

Do you think you can't have wireless access just because you've been handicapped by a 56k Internet connection? Think again. We'll show you two products that will have you wirelessly surfing without broadband in no time. Plus, we'll give you an overview of the various flavors of the 802.11 protocol.

By Ron Pacchiano

Q. I have a rather unusual question. I have two computers at home; one desktop and one laptop. I'd like to be able to share an Internet connection with both of these systems, with a wireless connection with my laptop so that I could still surf while moving around the house. The problem is that I live in a somewhat rural area, so a broadband Internet connection, like cable or DSL, is out of the question. I'm stuck using a 56k dial-up connection. Is it possible to get a wireless router that works with a dial-up connection? Do they even make this type of a product?

A. As you know, not all areas have the luxury of broadband Internet access, so there are definitely companies out there that make this type of product.... but they're pretty rare. Usually routers that have any dial-up functionality reserve it for use as a backup in case the primary broadband connection fails.

However, there are a few of them that would work for you. Two such products are the ZoomAir IG-4165 Wireless Internet Gateway and the SMC Barricade 4-Port 11Mbps Wireless Broadband Router (model 7004AWBR). Both of these products offer similar features. They are both NAT routers equipped with a 4-port 10/100 Mbps switch with a hardware firewall, built-in print server, DHCP services, 802.11b wireless conductivity and are managed through a Web-based configuration system.

I don't have any first hand experience with the SMC [[it was reviewed a couple years ago here on PracticallyNetworked]], but I know a number of technicians and reviewers that have worked with them and have been quite happy with its performance. The ZoomAir I reviewed about a year ago and was very impressed with it. So you'll have to decide for yourself which one would be best for you.

Keep in mind that while both of these products will allow you to share your dial-up Internet connection and provide your laptop with wireless conductivity, you are only sharing a 56k connection and you'll still have to deal with all of the limitations that come with that. On the bright side though, if broadband access does become available in your area you'll already have the hardware in place to take advantage of it. Hope this helps!

Q. I finally decided that the time had come to invest in a new notebook computer. Yet in spite of my newfound mobility, I was still being tethered to my desk to use my cable modem. I will soon be setting up a wireless network in my home, however I am undecided as to which wireless standard I should use. I understand that there are three of them; 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g, but I don't really know much about them. The notebook I bought came with an integrated 802.11b wireless network adapter, but I understand that 802.11g is faster. I'd like to get the fastest products I can, but since I already have a notebook running on the B standard I'm wondering if I'm just better off staying with what I have. Which 802.11 standard do you think would best suit me? Also, could you please explain to me the difference between each of them? Thank you!

A. Trying to decipher the alphabet soup that makes up the 802.11 standard can be a bit confusing, but we'll try to simplify it a bit here. Basically 802.11 is a protocol specification developed by the IEEE for wireless LAN technology. There are currently four specifications within this family; 802.11, 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g.

The earliest member of this family, 802.11, is used to specify an over-the-air interface between a wireless client and a base station or between two wireless clients. An 802.11 specification provides 1 or 2 Mbps transmission rates in the 2.4 GHz band using either Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) or the more common Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum (DSSS). No one uses this version anymore. If you're still using it, upgrade.

The next standard (and the most popular) is 802.11b. It provides 11 Mbps transmission speeds and also operates in the 2.4 GHz band using DSSS. It is backward compatible with 802.11, thus rolling back its transmission rates (5.5, 2 and 1 Mbps) as distances increase. Products based on this specification have very good range and can commonly transmit data distances well over 100ft. Better yet, 11b products are cheap. But any products using the 2.4 GHz band are prone to interference from the many, many other products that use the frequency, such as cordless phones.

802.11a differentiates itself in a number of ways. For starters, it operates at high radio frequencies in the 5GHz band and makes use of a modulation scheme known as Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing (OFDM). This modulation allows for data transmission speeds as high as 54Mbps.

However, there are few big drawbacks to this specification. Wireless hardware based on the "A" standard is generally much more expensive then their "B" counterparts. More importantly, products based on the "A" standard are not backwards compatible with the more common 802.11b standard. So if you want to upgrade to the high-speeds of "A", you'll have to invest in all new hardware. "A" products also suffer from shorter range then "B" products and are more prone to interference by obstructions like walls and doors.

The most recently introduced specification, 802.11g, offers users the best of both worlds. It provides users with the high data transmission rates of "A" (54Mbps), yet operates in the same 2.4 GHz range as "B" products. So unlike the 802.11a, 802.11g products are fully compatible with the older and more popular 802.11b standard. This is important because it allows network mangers to start upgrading their wireless network without having to replace all of the equipment they've already purchased. So far the only problem with the "G" specification is that they have yet to finalize the standard. The "G" based products from different vendors out right now might not be completely compatible with one another. Most products support upgradeable firmware so that once a standard has been implemented, you can update all of your hardware.

One clarification here; even though both 802.11a and 802.11b products advertise 54Mbps, realistically you shouldn't expect to see much more then 24Mbps out of them. Even 802.11b products can't really reach 11 Mbps -- real world is usually more like 4 to 6 Mbps.

11 and 54Mbps is a theoretical limit that can only be reached under ideal conditions that anyone has yet to experience. So even though 54Mbps seems a lot quicker than the 11Mbps of 802.11b, it really isn't. As a matter of fact, a slight tweak to the modulation used in 802.11b has allowed products using chips from Texas Instruments to increase performance to almost 22Mbps (again, this is the theoretical "max" speed).

Now that you understand the different 802.11 specifications, here's my recommendation as to what you should do. Purchase a wireless router based on the 802.11g specification. It can be used with your notebook's existing 802.11b card, so you don't need to spend additional money on a PC Card right now. Wait a few months for the 802.11g standard to be tied down and then upgrade your network later. This gets you online right away and gives you a little something to look forward to. Best of luck!

Use our feedback form to submit your questions on home or SOHO networking issues. We cannot guarantee to answer every question we get, but we'll consider them all. Earthweb HardwareCentral earthwebdeveloper CrossNodes Datamation

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