How to Build a Wireless Network
by Chris Dunigan
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Wireless networking is one of the fastest-growing forms of networking in the world.
Until very recently, it has been both expensive difficult to use. Horror stories abound of young businesses paying thousands of dollars, only to find that the range on their equipment is not enough for their office. This article addresses the three most common questions of first time wireless networking users: what should I buy, what do I need, and how do I get everything working.
Wireless networking is constantly improving, changing, though the basic principle is the same. Instead of using standard cables to transmit information from one point to another (or many), it uses radio signals. The closest comparison that can be made is 2.4GHz cordless phones. In fact, the technology used is almost identical, and the benefits of this almost go without saying. With wireless networking a computer or laptop can be moved anywhere within the range of the network without an interruption of network service. This means that if you have a laptop, you can sit in your favorite recliner and still surf the Internet or access your network without dragging a cord across the room.
Wireless networking comes in three major standards: 802.11b, 802.11a and 802.11g. Each of these standards has benefits and disadvantages. When selecting a networking standard you should carefully consider your needs in terms of range, building layout, and budget.
The standard wireless type is 802.11b. It has a maximum speed of 11 Mbps, with a maximum operating range of 300 ft. indoors and 500 ft. in an open area. The distance from the access point directly determines the speed of the connection. At 50 feet the speed is normally 11 Mbps. At ranges of 200-400 feet speed may fall to 1 Mbps or lower which can cause signals to drop off at random times, as well as the connection being slow. 802.11b operates on the popular 2.4 GHz frequency band, which can cause problems with cordless phones and microwave ovens on rare occasions.
In comparison to 802.11b, 802.11a is faster, however equipment using this standard is often more expensive. It provides a significant increase in speed (up to 54 Mbps) but with a shorter operating range. At distances over 100 feet the speed decreases, but at close ranges, speed will normally be between 22-40 Mbps. This equipment utilizes the 5 GHz range, which means more reliability, especially if you have other wireless networks in the same area.
A new line of products from wireless manufacturers combines the concepts of both 802.11a and 802.11b. Known as ?G?technology (802.11g), it features the speed of 802.11a equipment, but is completely backward compatible with existing 802.11b networks. It is slightly cheaper than the 802.11a technology, but still uses the 2.4 GHz band, so it can still cause problems with other devices. It bridges the gap between 802.11a and b, while providing an easy upgrade path for an existing ?b?network. The range is about the same as 802.11b. This standard is not compatible with 802.11a.
Tip: It is often better to stick with one manufacturer for all of your wireless equipment needs. Many of them have higher speeds and extended ranges when doing so. Both D-Link and Linksys brand networking equipment both offer this feature. If you use their equipment throughout your network the speed of the network can be nearly doubled while range is also slightly improved.
Network Layout ?What do I need?
The first thing we?re going to look at is, ?What do I need, exactly?? This can be a complicated question. Many people turn to wireless networking for its cost-effectiveness versus a similar wired network. In some instances a wired network is just too expensive to install. Although a wireless network is cost effective, it does have issues that need to be considered such as signal range, network speed and interference.
Wireless networking for two systems:
With only two computers, an Access Point is not needed. All that you need is a wireless adapter for each computer. This type of set-up is called an Ad-Hoc network, and is easily configured.
If you wish to share an internet connection, you can use Internet Connection Sharing software to accomplish this. Also, Windows ME, 2000, and XP offer basic built-in Internet Connection Sharing capabilities. To learn more about software routing, check out this article at PracticallyNetworked.com
If your wireless networking needs include more than two computers, read on!
Location, Location, Location
The physical dimensions of the area and the number of computers that need network access determine the type of wireless equipment needed. If all of the computers are in a small area, say an office no more than 200-250 square feet, with few walls, all that is needed are: (1) wireless network adapter per computer and (1) wireless access point (or router if a Broadband connection needs to be shared). To setup the network, install the wireless network adapters into each computer and plug in the wireless AP or Router at a central location. The diagram below explains this concept in more detail:
One major issue that must be addressed when installing a wireless network is the location of walls. Walls are bad. Walls can cut the wireless signal in half, or even more. This is crucial when deciding where to place the AP/ Router. In the diagram above, no computer is more than 100 feet away, with very few walls to degrade the signal. This environment is preferable, but not always feasible. For a more in depth look at this type of configuration please see the install section of this article.
Factoring in the number of PCs
The first question to ask is this: How many computers are needed on this wireless network? If you already have a hard-wired network, you need to create a Hybrid network, which is explained later.
Wireless networking for three or more systems
If the network is going to contain more then two systems then an Ad-Hoc network is not going to be a good solution. With three or more systems an access point or router should be placed in a central location with repeaters or additional access points extending range as needed. When working with wireless networks, always try to use one brand for all equipment! It can prevent a lot of headaches later on (and normally requires much less configuration).
Sample Configuration: Installation of a four-computer wireless LAN
So, let?s say, for example, that you have four (4) computers on your network, you don?t have a broadband internet connection and all computers are well within 100 feet of each other. For this type of network the following equipment is needed: (1) Wireless Access Point and (4) Wireless Network Adapters.
The NICs can be either USB (external), PCI (internal), or, in the case of a laptop computer, PCMCIA. USB wireless NICs are the more versatile type in this situation as their antenna can be positioned away from any enclosure provided by the PC itself or the desk. The performance of USB NICs and PCI are roughly identical, however in most situations the USB one is going to have a better line of sight with the Access Point or router. Better line of sight = higher speed.
Always remember when buying wireless networking equipment to make sure that everything is the same type of WiFi. The most common is type 802.11b, and most equipment is compatible with this standard. Once you have purchased a basic Access Point and your four network adapters, it?s time to get started!
Step 1: Find a suitable area for the Access Point
To achieve the best signal with the least interference from furniture and electrical devices keep the Access point no higher or lower then eye-level. Place the Access Point on either a shelf will do nicely, or mount it on the wall.
Warning: Never put an access point inside an enclosed space. It will greatly degrade signal strength and may cause the AP to heat up. Keep it in an open area, if at all possible.
Step 2: Install the wireless network adapters
Follow the installation instructions for the wireless adapters. Installation is generally simple especially when using the same manufacturer for all wireless network equipment.
Step 3: Test the signal and reposition the AP as needed
Each adapter should be connected to the access point as soon as the installation is finished (this may require a restart of the computer). Most wireless manufacturers will include a small signal meter with their adapters. Go to each system and spend a few minutes watching the meter to make sure the signal is steady and high. If it tends to fluctuate or is very low, then the access point may need to be moved closer. Sometimes a few inches make a big difference. Get your access point at the optimum location where you get the best signal quality and strength for all computers.
Mixing Wireless and Wired, a Hybrid network
If there is an existing wired network and only a few computers need connected via Wireless the process is similar. When choosing an Access Point or Router, make sure it comes with a few LAN ports (most have 10/100 ports built-in). They will effectively become an add-on hub to your network, with a minimal amount of configuration. Then, just set up your wireless computers to access the AP or Router, and you?ve got a hybrid network.
Routing a broadband connection through your wireless network is almost exactly the same as doing so with a wired network. Most wireless routers have a web-browser based configuration menu, which allows you to configure your broadband connection, then shares it through your network. Just plug your Broadband modem into your Wireless router, configure the router for your settings, and surf!
Note: Many wireless routers also have standard RJ45 10/100 LAN ports on them for connecting systems over standard wired connections. These types of routers function as both wireless and standard 10/100 Cable/DSL routers. The prices on these types of routers have dropped significantly in recent years. If you are replacing a Cable/DSL router that is over two years old you may find that such combo routers are less then or equal to the price you originally paid for your wired only router.
Extending Range, Advanced Network Layout
Sometimes the basic network layout just doesn?t work due to range, obstructing walls/floors, or the overall layout of the site. When this happens there are a few options and all of them have various advantages and disadvantages.
If the range only needs to extend by a couple of hundred feet then one or more Repeating Access Points can be added to the network. These are wonderful little inventions that work just like an Access Point, but have a special Repeating mode that integrates it with the wireless network. To configure the repeater, you must plug it in to your physical network (usually your original Access Point or Router) via a standard Category 5e ethernet cable to configure it, but after that it can be moved anywhere. As with the main Access Point, the best location for your repeater should be determined by trial and error by checking the signal meters on the respective PCs on the network. Repeaters can usually double the effective range, allowing more computers to be added to the wireless network. Repeaters can be added as needed to extend the network with few limitations. A basic diagram below shows this Principle.
Basic Wireless network with Repeater:
Expanded network with several Repeaters:
Hard-wiring more than one Wireless Network
But, suppose the network needs to span several floors, or there are two or more wireless networks so far apart that several repeaters have to be put in a line to cross the distance. When this happens there is another option: Hard-wired access points.
Up until almost the end of 2002, this was the ONLY option for extending the range of wireless networks. Repeaters are very useful, but sometimes hardwiring is the only feasible solution. The basic principles of wireless networking still apply, but there are a few changes to make.
The best way to do this is to set up all of the wireless networks separately, then run Category 5e Ethernet cable to each of the far-reaching Access Points that need connected. The Access Points will require a small amount of configuration, but its not hard and the instructions should be clearly written in the User Guide that comes with them. The best use for this is spanning more than one floor, as wireless radio signals simply will not travel through them. The diagram below shows an example of this type of Wireless expansion.
An important thing to remember about wireless networks, just like any other large computer job, is to PLAN. There is nothing worse than putting in an equipment request, buying everything needed, and only to be stopped by a problem you didn't plan on. My suggestion is to work out a basic diagram of the area you will be working with. Map out the distances between each computer and plan the layout of the Access Points and Repeaters this way. Allow for plenty of extra room for walls and other obstructions. If a computer is 100 feet away from the AP but there are one or two walls between them, consider the distance 70 feet or so. We all make mistakes, and there are almost always unforeseen circumstances. Just give yourself plenty of space to work with and take as much time as you need to make your plan before making the purchase and starting the installation. Wireless networking is just like anything else worth doing; It will take time (and probably some mistakes) but the rewards can be great!
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