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Chapter 3. Choosing the Best Network Typ... > Wireless Options: Deciphering the Pr...

Wireless Options: Deciphering the Protocol Soup

Wireless networks use two-way radio transmissions to transfer data between the various devices on the network. As Figure 3-5 shows, this makes wireless networking very attractive for a home network where unsightly cables can cause many problems.

Figure 3-5. Wireless Networks Use Invisible Radio Waves in Place of Wires

A wireless network can function in two different modes:

  • Ad-hoc mode— This mode does not use a central device such as a router or access point, and the PCs communicate directly with each other. Ad-hoc mode can save you the cost of an access point or a router, but it makes it more difficult to connect wired and wireless sections of your network.

  • Infrastructure mode— This mode uses a router or access point to handle all network traffic and makes it possible to access a wired network such as the Internet. In most cases, infrastructure mode is the better choice for your home network.

Wireless networks use the following types of equipment:

  • A wireless network adapter for each PC. Some laptop PCs now come with built-in wireless adapters.

  • Access points, which provide a central connection between your wireless devices and also to a wired network such as the Internet. If you use an access point, each PC is responsible for its own security unless the wired part of your network is connected to the Internet through a router.

  • Wireless routers, which provide built-in security features in addition to the functions of an access point. For most wireless home networks, a wireless router is a better choice than a simple access point would be.

  • Wireless gateways, which are essentially wireless routers with a built-in cable modem.

  • Wireless Ethernet bridges, game adapters and media adapters that are specialty devices that allow wired equipment to access your wireless network. Chapter 9, “The Magic of Entertainment Options,” discusses the use of these types of equipment.

Wireless networking equipment comes in several different flavors, which are defined by the various standards that have been developed to ensure that a degree of compatibility will exist between products from different manufacturers. Some equipment supports more than one of the standards, but most wireless networking gear complies with a single standard. It is very important that you choose the best standard to suit your needs, and that all the equipment you purchase supports that standard. Also, look for the Wi-Fi Certified label, because this indicates that the equipment has been tested and certified to meet the standards.

The next few sections look at the various wireless networking standards to see how they compare.


The oldest type of wireless networking equipment uses the 802.11b standard, which has the following characteristics:

  • Uses the 2.4-GHz unlicensed radio band that is shared with microwave ovens and some cordless phones

  • Offers up to 11-Mbps throughput (depending on distance and number of devices)

  • Has approximately 100- to 150-foot range indoors (depending on obstructions)

  • Can experience radio interference from some cordless phones and from microwave ovens

  • Is the most widely adopted wireless networking standard and, therefore, generally the least expensive


The next type of wireless networking equipment to appear was that complying with the 802.11a standard. The equipment that follows this standard has these characteristics:

  • Uses the 5-GHz unlicensed radio band

  • Offers up to 54-Mbps throughput (depending on the number of devices)

  • Has approximately 25- to 75-foot range indoors (depending on obstructions)

  • Is fairly immune to interference because few devices use this radio band

  • Is usually more expensive than other options


The 802.11g standard is currently the newest wireless networking option. This standard has the following characteristics:

  • Uses the 2.4-GHz unlicensed radio band

  • Offers up to 54-Mbps throughput (or higher, using certain types of equipment with proprietary technology)

  • Has approximately 100- to 150-foot range indoors (depending on obstructions)

  • Can experience interference from cordless phones and microwave ovens, in addition to some other types of devices

  • Is compatible with 802.11b equipment at 11 Mbps, and is only slightly more expensive than 802.11b

Of these three standards, it appears as though 802.11g offers the best mix of performance and value at this time. Identifying 802.11g gear is easy because most manufacturers prominently display some variation such as G or 54G in the product names.


Chapter 8, “Sharing Your Network,” covers how you can inexpensively extend your 802.11b or 802.11g wireless network's range.


You might have heard of another wireless standard known as Bluetooth. Although Bluetooth also shares the unlicensed 2.4-GHz radio band, it is incompatible with any of the wireless networking standards. It is possible to use Bluetooth for some limited forms of file sharing, but it is really not intended as a type of wireless networking. Rather, Bluetooth is more commonly used for connecting GPS receivers to laptops or PDAs, for wireless headsets for cell phones, and for synchronizing PDAs with desktop PCs. Both the performance and range of Bluetooth are too low to be considered a practical wireless networking option.

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