Tip & How-To about Computers & Internet

Understanding Wireless Networks

It seems that more and more of todays high tech devices are WiFi enabled. Laptops, printers, cell phones, Skype phones, video game consoles, TVs, blueray players, and coffee pots (yes, I am serious) are just a few of the devices that communicate with the cloud via a wireless network. Wifi is an excellent tool that allows freedom and roam-ability as well as being simple, flexable, and (for the first time ever) cheap. Though it may sound like wifi may be the greatest thing since sliced bread, it may pop your dream bubble when it falls short on security as well as signal limitations. However, even after weighing the pros and cons, wifi is still near and dear to my heart. This article is designed to give readers a little insight of how wifi works, in hopes they get a better understanding of how to use it, configure it, and secure it.

Wired vs. Wireless

Wireless networks work the same way wired networks do. The only difference is wireless devices use radio transmissions to communicate instead of copper medium. So, it is important to first understand how wired networks work. Every device on a network has two unique addresses, an IP Address as well as a Media Access Control Address (or MAC Address). IP Addresses are assigned to a device by a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol Server (DHCP Server) which, in a LAN, is usually the router itself. MAC Addresses on the other hand, are hard coded into a device by the manufacturer and are globally unique. When a device is plugged into your network it sends a dhcp request to get an IP address (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1

Your router has to do the same thing with your ISP. The IP Address that the ISP assigns you is your global IP address. It's how any device in the cloud identifies your network (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

The IEEE 802.11 Standard

IEEE 802.11 is a set of standards covering wireless computer communication in the 2.4,3.7 and 5 GHz bands. It covers 802.11 a/b/g/n in the united states.

In order to use any particular standard, the router and the wireless device must feature that standard. Thus, If you have a wireless-n enabled device, you must also have a wireless-n enabled router in order to enjoy the features of wireless-n. Most devices are backward compatble to a degree. If you have a wireless-n device, but a wireless-g router, your device will communicate via the g standard.

Communication Failures

One of the drawbacks of Wifi is the many ways you can lose communication. Do you remember the good old days, when you tuned your TV to a dead channel? Do you remember the static? Well static is still all around us. As long as your signal is "louder" than the static you will get good reception. The same rule applies to wifi. They call it the Signal-to-noise ratio. The louder the noise, the more packet loss you generate. The more packet loss you have, the more packets need to be resent. The more packets need to be resent the more bandwidth you use. The more Bandwidth you use, the slower your network is. It's an ugly chain of events leading to a communication failure. Other electronic devices can create the noise as well, called interference. Microwave ovens are an example of such a device. The noise is only half of the equation, the signal being the other. Low signal will cause the same problem as high noise. To keep a good strong signal there are only two factors, range and line-of-sight. When it comes to radio communication, line-of-sight is everything. If you can see it... you can talk to it. The more objects that break the line-of-sight (walls, ceilings, fireplaces, etc) the lower your signal will be, thus lowering the effective range and causing potential dead zones.


I could write a whole article covering this subject. However, this wil be the brief version. To be quite frank, all forms of wireless security are flawed. All are crackable, given the hacker has the talent. However, something is better than nothing. So, I will give a breif rundown on the different forms of encryption available to the current standards. First, is Wired Equivalent Privacy or WEP. WEP was the first wireless security standard, also being the weakest. WEP offers two forms of authenication, open system and shared key. Though both forms are flawed, open system is the lesser of two evils as the challenge packet offered during shared key autentication can be easily deciphered. Second, there is Wifi Protected Access or WPA and WPA2. These systems offer great security improvements over WEP. They offer TKIP as an encryption algorithm and also support dynamic key changes. However, flaws have been found in TKIP as well and now AES is the strongest algorithm to date. So, The recommended security combination is WPA2 w/ AES. Also, since your pre-shared key is applied to the encryption algorithm, a strong key (at least 13 characters) is recommended as well. There are other configurations that will increase security as well (Such as disabling the SSID broadcast) that should be taken into consideration.

The Routers Web Interface

All configuration changes applied to the router will be done via the routers web interface. To access your routers web interface, you must first determine what your router's IP address is. This can be done by either consulting your routers user manual or by running "ipconfig" in Windows command prompt. The default gateway for your ethernet adapter is your routers IP address. Launch a web browser of your choice and enter your routers IP address. If this is the first time you have done this, the username and password will be their defaults. Your user manual will have this information.

I hope this helps in setting up your wireless network. Thanks for reading my tip and best regards,


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