There are some big steps in life that merit serious thought. One is marriage. Another is buying a house. Yet a third is whether to set up a wireless network at home or in a small office. Of the three, the first two may be the less stressful.
A friend of mine recently tried to set up a small WiFi (wireless) network at home, and gave it up in frustration after days of technologically induced anguish. He's been married for decades, and has no anxiety about real estate. He's also a bright guy. It's just that home wireless, like raising children, is more about persistence than conquest. The allure of being able to work on the patio while contemplating fireflies is a strong one, and rightfully so. Just know what you're getting into.
Most wireless networks require a central point that connects all the computers with an Internet source, like cable or DSL. This device is a "router." It typically has one or two antennas, with at least a single port to plug in the Internet connection. All the other connections are via radio signals exchanged with computers throughout the house or office. No matter where the computers are, no matter where they are taken within a short range, they're in contact with the router and, through the router, with the Internet and with one another. Sounds simple, and indeed it's fairly easy to set up if you're experienced and possess the energetic tenacity of a terrier. The problem is that there are a slew of variables between you and the Net, any one of which can clog the pipe and prevent connection.
Getting signals to behave can be daunting. Although wireless signals are touted by manufacturers as being able to pass like Casper the Friendly Ghost through anything except a bank vault, the reality is quite different. You may get a strong connection with a computer two floors away, while registering a faint shadow just yards away. You may have to try combinations of antennas, routers, computer cards and locations before everything connects.
But that aggravation is small next to the exasperation of settings. Routers and computers both have numerous settings for wireless, and these settings can be hard to get just right. Each computer on your network must have an address and a name, and you have to know where and how to set these. The router must have an address, too, and that must also be set. The settings use esoteric techno-terms, like "TCP/IP" and "DNS" that aren't self-evident.
There are books, articles, Web pages and instruction manuals that will walk you through settings, but some of the advice is contradictory and you should still expect to experiment with your own unique setup to get it right. It's this huntand-peck period that will usually defeat the do-ityourselfer. No one has yet invented a plug-and-play wireless network.
An important segment of settings deals with security. Because wireless uses radio, it's available to anyone within range. Thieves prowl for free wireless, in a practice known as "wardriving." Your neighbors can take advantage of your unintentional generosity just as easily if you don't lock down your network.
To start with, use MAC access. Every piece of hardware has a unique MAC address assigned at the factory. Inform your router of the MAC address for each computer you want to have access. This keeps out the casual interloper as well as the thief. The drawback is you can't just haul in a new laptop and hook it right to your network until its MAC address is known to the router, and that can take some time.
You also need to enable WEP (wired equivalent privacy) encryption. It scrambles signals to and from the router, making them harder to penetrate. WEP is famously weak, but it's better than nothing. Better schemes have been devised, but less expensive equipment may not have them yet. And speaking of equipment, it may be a good idea to stick with the same brand for all your networking gear. There have been reports of one manufacturer's adapter cards for the computer, for example, not working properly with some other maker's router. In wireless, it's usually best to reduce the variables to a bare minimum. Don't skimp on quality. The better brands will work better and set up more easily.
The Web is filled with helpful sites for WiFi. One is Practically Networked (www.practicallynetworked.com). Another is DLink's site (www.dlink.com). DLink is a major manufacturer of WiFi equipment. NetGear (www.netgear.com) is also a maker of WiFi. That fount of online knowledge, About.com, has networking advice at compnetworking.about.com/. There's even a Dummies book on wireless home networking, by Danny Briere, Pat Hurley and Walter Bruce.
Altom is a systems interaction designer for Indiana University, based at IUPUI. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.