Troubleshooting Q&A - February 1, 2005
Can You Share a Dial-up Connection?
Even in today's high-speed world of cable and DSL connections, dial-up isn't dead. However, options for sharing a dial-up line are limited. We offer a look at the products available and also make a plea to convert to broadband.
By Ron Pacchiano
Q. I'm a single working mother of two college students. For the longest time, we have had only one PC in our house. A desktop computer with an internal modem and a printer/fax machine connected to a second phone line. Since they started college, the kids are having a much more difficult time getting their work done using just the single PC. Recently, we have started exploring the possibility of getting each of them their own computer. Whether that be notebooks are desktop computers is still being discussed. In either case, though, they would each need access to the Internet.
I don't have the money to shell out for a high-speed cable modem or DSL line, which means we're stuck using the dial-up connection. They would like to be able to access the Internet from they're bedrooms, but other then having the phone company come in and install new phone jacks, I don't know how we would do that. So I was wondering if there is any kind of modem, hub, switch, etc. that I could use to share my desktop's dial-up Internet connection among all three computers and still be able to keep the fax machine on the dedicated line? Thanks for all of your help.
A. It's funny: Sometimes I forget that not everybody has the luxury of a high-speed Internet connection. Ironically, it would seem that I'm not alone. Most vendors don't even produce dial-up routers anymore. The few that do use it primarily as a backup in case the broadband connection goes down. In fact, the last time somebody asked me a question like this I couldn't even find any new products to recommend. The only ones I was even familiar with (the ZoomAir IG-4165 Wireless Internet Gateway and the SMC Barricade Wireless Router) were already several years old.
Coincidently, a few days before I received your question a colleague of mine had pointed out a product that would be perfect for someone in your situation. It was called the WiFlyer dial-up/broadband portable access point from a company called Always On Wireless Inc..
About the size of a large PDA, the WiFlyer is designed to be used as a dial-up access point providing your network access to a dial-up Internet account. Just as a router does for broadband, the WiFlyer will provide Internet access for all of the PCs in your workgroup without the need to configure complicated software. And unlike Microsoft's Internet Connection Sharing (ICS), a dedicated PC doesn't need to remain on at all times. It supports IEEE802.11b standard and has an internal antenna along with an antenna port for an external antenna (not included). While it's not as fast as its 802.11g brethren, it's more than adequate for the average user.
While the WiFlyer's wireless speed may seem a bit dated, its wireless security is certainly not. With WPA-PSK as well as 64- and 128-bit WEP encryption, disabling AP visibility, and MAC address filtering, the WiFlyer can easily keep your wireless network safe from all but the most dedicated intruders. Some other notable network features include a port-filtering firewall, virtual server, port trigger, DMZ host and MAC address cloning. The WiFlyer also features a Phonebook that allows you to store up to 10 dial-up access numbers and supports just about all ISP brands of web accelerators.
Like other routers in its class, the WiFlyer can be configured using virtually any Web browser. Since only a browser is needed, the WiFlyer is compatible with just about any operating system. The one feature the WiFlyer doesn't have unfortunately is auto connect. So when trying to access your browser's home page, the WiFlyer will redirect the browser to its dial-up configuration page. Once there you can simply click on the "Dial Now!" button.
Don't let that discourage you, though. The WiFlyer is packed with enough features to go toe-to-toe with some of today's more popular broadband routers. As a matter of fact, the only real downside to this unit is the price. With an MSRP of approximately $150, it's more then twice the price of your average Cable/DSL router. However, in the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king. That old adage can be applied here as well. If you must use dial-up, you really don't have a lot of options to choose from.
On the plus side, even though the WiFlyer is on the expensive side, it is a very good router. It's portable, and lastly, it's broadband-compatible. So if at some point in the future you do breakdown and upgrade to a high-speed connection, the WiFlyer will still be there to protect you. This makes it a good value.
As good as the WiFlyer is, I'd be remised if I didn't reiterate that this is still only a 56k line. Even when used in conjunction with the highly marketed Web accelerators from ISPs like Netscape and People PC, performance in most cases will be less then impressive. Divide that limited bandwidth among three users during peak hours and your going to learn the meaning of pain.
If it were me, I would consider seriously ditching the dial-up line if at all possible and upgrade to one of the widely available broadband offerings. The time it saves you when downloading or just plain Web browsing would more then compensate for the added expense. Consider this: If you're already paying about $20 a month for your dial-up line, then the cable modem would cost you only about $20 more a month. The WiFlyer cost about $60 $80 more than a comparable broadband router. On eBay you could probably find a decent wireless router for as little as $30 bucks. In that case, the WiFlyer would cost almost $120 more. So for that same $20 more a month, you could have up to six months of broadband for no more than it would have cost you to stay with your dial-up connection. When you think of it that way, it's seriously worth considering.
Don't forget that you'll also need to purchase two wireless network adapters for the two kids' PCs. You should be able to find those for less than $60 bucks these days, slightly more if you need a PC Card version for a laptop.
For help on configuring your wireless network you could check out this past Q&A column that I did which addressed some of the more common things to look out for. You can find that here. The router's documentation should also have pretty clear instructions on what to do.
One last thing: Even though you didn't mention it in your question, I suspect that once you have these PCs up and running your kids are going to need access to a printer, especially if they're being used for school. So you're going to want to configure File and Print Sharing on your PC, so that it can be shared among all three systems. A while back I did an article describing exactly how to go about doing this. You can find it here.
Good luck with everything and I hope this helps some.
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