“Back in the day”, which, in computer terms, means, oh, three-to-five years ago, most people in homes with multiple computers (except the truly “geeky” types) didn’t consider connecting their computers over a network. Why? Three reasons, really. One: it was complicated. Getting two computers to talk to each other was “Masters-level” computing, and not for the casual user. Two: cables. Networking required Ethernet cables. In the home environment, that meant running (unsightly) cables through the house (and walls) to all the places besides your computer desk that you thought you might want to use another computer. And, three: dial-up internet connections. Think dial-up internet is slow? Try sharing a dial-up connection. Ouch.
Today, however, the barriers to home networking have pretty much fallen. Modern operating systems make it so much easier for computers to get together the process is now almost nonchalant (especially on a Mac - but, I digress). New, speedy, wireless networking protocols have emerged, with even faster versions on the way. And, cheap, widespread (well, except for Georgetown and other areas of rural Maine) broadband internet access is now available.
So, what do you need to know about wireless networking in preparation for turning your home into a wireless “hotspot”?
First, let’s talk a little about digital data transfer speeds between devices, be they computers, modems, or wireless antennas. The traditional 56K modem we’re all familiar with was called “56K” because it had a “theoretical” data transfer rate of 56 kilobits-per-second. Now, as computer users we don’t think of data as “kilobits” we deal in kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes, etc. Since there are eight bits in a byte of digital data, 56 kilobits-per-second yields 7 kilobytes of data transfer every second. Now, try as you might, over the best phone lines connected to the faster server, you never saw more than 5 kilobytes-per-second of transfer speed on a 56K modem. Hence the term “theoretical”. I only mention the speeds of the 56K modem so you can see just how much faster DSL and cable connections really are.
However, theoretical speeds apply to these more modern, faster transfer protocols as well. Let’s say you’re using a DSL connection that boasts a speed of 3 megabits-per-second. The connection should yield 375 kilobytes-per-second, which is, as they say, wicked fast. However, I have one of these connections, and I have never seen speeds over 250 kilobytes-per-second. Most speeds are around 150 kilobytes-per-second. The rate you achieve at home is subject to many factors, among which are the speed of the server you’re connected to, the internet “route” you’re taking to get there, your phone line, your modem, etc.
Finally we get to the wireless protocols. For a long time 801.11b (I know, why couldn’t there be a more user-friendly name?) was the standard, with a theoretical throughput of 11 megabits-per-second. Recently, the 802.11g protocol, with its 54 megabits-per-second speed, has become the standard. However, neither of these protocols yield their advertised speed numbers in the “real world”. In fact, 802.11b yields around 5 megabits-per-second, while 802.11g yields around 20 megabits-per-second.
Wireless’ very nature contributes to its not achieving its advertised speed. Why? It’s a radio signal transmitted between two points. This radio signal operates in the 2.4 gigahertz microwave frequency, which is far separated from audio radio frequencies. However, other devices operate at or near this frequency, like cordless phones and even microwave ovens, and can cause interference. Plus, the very walls of your home can suck up some of the signal strength.
Discouraged yet? Don’t be. Wireless really works great, as we’ll discover next time.
© 2005 Peter F. Zimowski