Setting Up a Small Office / Home Office Wireless Network
Ted Goldsmith 10/2015 More on Home Office Networks
This article describes how to easily and very inexpensively set up a small office / home office (SOHO) wireless network. Wireless digital data networks are increasingly essential in the home or small office. Virtually all laptops and netbooks come with wireless and smartphones like the iPhone or Blackberry can also use WiFi. In addition, many Bluray players, video game consoles, Tivo systems, and even TV sets come with or can be equipped for WiFi access to the Internet. Desktops can be equipped with a wireless adapter if it is inconvenient to provide wired connection. An iPhone or similar can be set to automatically switch from the cell phone carrier’s 3G network to WiFi when in your home or office. This often results in a dramatic increase in speed depending on the quality of your 3G (or slower) data connection. WiFi is completely different from the shorter-range Bluetooth system.
The wireless or “WiFi” systems operate on a standard called 802.11 and therefore equipment from any vendor will normally work with a user’s device designed to communicate over a WiFi network. Router vendors often incorporate additional non-standard proprietary features that only work with specific compatible equipment.
There are several different sub-standards that allow for different maximum data rates and ranges. Wireless routers can be purchased for as little as $35 for a shorter range, lower speed “G” unit, to $150 or so for a longer range, higher data rate “N” unit. These (802.11 G and 802.11 N) are the two types in current use although older equipment may operate using the earlier 802.11 B standard. Routers can normally support any equipment operating on the same or lower standard (i.e an N router can handle a G or B laptop). However, the range and speed advantages may be lost.
The data rates specified seem as if they would accommodate any need but they are raw data rates under ideal conditions such as the device in the same room with the router. “Overhead” significantly decreases usable data rates. In addition, the WiFi system automatically retreats to lower data rates (as low as kilobits per second) if interference, distance, or obstructions degrade from a perfect signal. Just because your device says “connected” does not mean you have a high speed connection. Walls containing metal especially cause problems. Devices that can display web pages can use speedtest.net or equivalent to measure connection speed. Of course, speeds are limited by the underlying cable or DSL connection. Smaller devices like iPhones, iPod Touch, etc. typically need stronger signals and need to be closer to the router. The iPad wireless is especially weak. Data rates and ranges may be substantially different outside the U.S. because of differing regulations although compatible 802.11 WiFi service is now widely available worldwide. My netbook and Skype worked fine in Beijing, Hong Kong and Moscow hotels. Because a number of radio channels are available to routers, you could have multiple wireless routers in your home or office to overcome distance or obstruction problems. A second router could be wired to one of the Ethernet jacks in the first router.
Configuring a Wireless Network
You can buy a router, connect your cable or DSL modem to the “Internet” RJ-45 jack, connect up to three (sometimes four) wired computers to the “Ethernet” jacks, plug the wall-wart into the wall, and happily proceed to use your network. This results in a totally open public Internet “hot spot” that can be used by anybody within range. Your network will have a default name like “1992233187” or “linksys.” If you live in a rural area this may be fine. If you live in an apartment, your neighbors will thank you for providing free Internet access. Some newer routers force a configuration step. When you first attempt to access the web, they present a configuration page using a PIN (printed on the router) as password.
There are several reasons you might not want to have a public network within range of many people: If all of your firewalls and access permissions are not properly set, your private files might possibly be exposed to a hacker. A stranger using your access might use it for illegal or sleazy purposes like email spam, conceivably causing problems for you. Other users subtract from the available bandwidth. There are two general ways to limit access. In the “authorization” mode, the router requires a user name and password for access. In the “encryption” method, the router requires all communications to be encrypted using a particular key. Unfortunately, there are a lot of pitfalls and some devices can only do particular access methods.
To configure access use the router’s supplied configuration software running on a computer that is wired to one of the Ethernet jacks on the router or the web screen described above. I have found that the access control method least likely to cause problems while providing decent security is to use open (none) authorization, “WEP” 64 bit encryption, and a single 40 bit hexadecimal key (ten characters, 0-9, A-F). When first connecting a device, the user enters this key as the password. Subsequent connections are automatic. The key could be something easy to remember such as DEED223344. This works on a variety of laptops, netbooks, iPhones, game consoles, Bluray players and Tivo. When configuring, change the router’s name, network name, and password.
A wireless relay device can be used to extend a wireless signal further. Such a device in-effect communicates with your main wireless on one channel and then communicates with user devices on another channel. The relay will have its own wireless name and can have a different password and only has a wired connection to power. A smart phone or other portable device, once initially connected to both main wireless and the relay can usually automatically switch as the user moves arouind the facility. Very similarly, it is possible to have two wireless routers located in different locations in a facility and connected by RJ-45 cables to the cable or DSL modem.
If stringing RJ-45 "Cat-5" Internetcables for such an application is inconvienient power-line network adapters can be used to extend the Cat-5 cable. The adapter at each end plugs into a RJ-45 cable and also plugs into a wall power outlet and communicates with the other adapter using high speed signalling over the power line. It is even possible to have three-way communications by using three adapters. Do not plug the adapters into surge protectors or extension cords because that typically interferes with the signal. The effectiveness and speed of a power line system is highly dependent on details of the facility power wiring.
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