Setting Up A WiFi LAN

Are you new to networking, or have you setup a few networks in the past? Networking looks really complicated (it can look that way), but it's basically just hooking up a few wires, and praying real well.

Setting up an Ethernet LAN is pretty simple, but it contains one annoying detail. With a wired LAN, unless the computer and router are right next to each other, you have to figure out how to locate the Ethernet cable that connects them. With a wired LAN, you have cables everywhere.

A WiFi LAN lets you remove the cables. With more work in the beginning, you're freer in the end. Without a simple physical cable, which you can see and touch, you have to setup a wireless connection, that you can't see or touch. But know, and understand, the limitations of WiFi.

Make It Easy For Yourself - Design The Installation Properly
Purchase The Right Equipment. You can setup a WiFi network without using a router / WiFi access point - this is called ad-hoc WiFi. But setting up an ad-hoc WiFi network is more complicated, and less secure, than an infrastructure (router / WAP based) network.

Plan The Installation
Read The Manual. Having carefully selected your WiFi Access Point / Router, and your WiFi Client Adapters, you hopefully spent some time acquainting yourself with their features. Now, spend some time perusing the guides and instruction manuals. Doing so is a good investment of your time.

Test As You Go. If this is the first time you've setup WiFi equipment, you may benefit from testing as you setup. Having 2 computers is a very good idea
  1. Connect one by Ethernet to the AP, and use it to make changes in the AP settings.
  2. Connect a second by WiFi, and use it to test the changes to the AP.
Having 1 computer, doing dual duty, can be done; but having 2 computers is a lot less stressful.

Stage The Installation. Setting up a WiFi LAN can be pretty stressful - it's 3 or 4 times as complicated as setting up an Ethernet LAN. If you plan, and setup in stages, you can reduce your stress level significantly.

Setup The Access Point / Router
You still need an Ethernet cable when you setup the access point / router. Whenever you make configuration changes to a router (wired or wireless), the router may have to restart itself. When that happens, you will lose connectivity. Reestablishing connectivity with a wired connection is bad enough; reestablishing a wireless connection in some cases (if, for instance, you get the WPA key wrong) will be impossible. Always connect by Ethernet, if not absolutely impossible, when making changes.

Even though you may have bought the router that afternoon, it may have been sitting in the store for a while, and the vendor may have issued firmware updates for it since it was shipped from the factory. Check with the vendor, and see if any firmware updates are available.

  • Setup your computer as a DHCP client.
  • Install an Access Point / NAT router, and give it power.
  • Connect an Ethernet cable to the router, and to your computer.
  • Power your computer up.
  • Connect your computer to the router thru your browser.
  • Install any available firmware updates to the router.
  • Make all the necessary IP and WiFi settings to the router.

NOTE: Most access points and routers, wired or wireless, will come with installation guides and configuration utilities, and some will offer to install software on your computer. If you plan your installation properly, no additional software should be necessary. Your Windows system has a browser, and that should be all the software that you need to connect to your access point or router. Don't install unnecessary software.

The changes to a WiFi access point / router include Internet Protocol settings (like a wired NAT router), and WiFi settings. WiFi settings include:

  • Connectivity settings.

    • Channel. You need a channel with no other devices within range, to get maximum bandwidth.

      • You can choose from any channel number 1 - 11 (in the USA). To minimise interference, and maximise satisfaction between WiFi neighbours, we choose between 3 non-overlapping channels 1, 6, and 11.

        Non Overlapping Channels
        Bottom ("1")
        Middle ("6")
        Top ("11")

      • With 802.11g-super, there is no channel choice. If a channel number is displayed, it will be "6", and be unselectable.
      • If there is any other network within range, using any channel which your router may use, you won't get maximum bandwidth. You will have to share the channel with your neighbor.

    • Interoperability. What standard will you use - 802.11b, 802.11b/g, 802.11g, or the newest (and currently not complete) 802.11n?

      • With 802.11b, you'll get a maximum bandwidth of 11M (half duplex).
      • With 802.11b/g (having a combination of 802.11b and 802.11g devices on your LAN), you will get between 11M and 54M (probably substantially less than 54M though). (Again, half duplex).
      • Only with 802.11g will you have a prayer of getting a full 54M (and that's with no 802.11b networks anywhere visible). (And still, half duplex).
      • If you have 2 802.11Super-G devices, from the same vendor, and no other WiFi devices are within range, you might be able to get 108M.
      • If you get 802.11n equipment, and have no other networks within range, you might get 108M or higher. This simply can't be objectively predicted, for any location, though.

  • Security settings.

    • Authentication. How will the wireless clients identify themselves to the router?
    • Encryption. How will the wireless clients keep your communications, between themselves and the router, private?
    • Logging. How will YOU know what is happening on your WiFi LAN?
    • Visibility. Hiding the SSID will not help you, and may hurt network performance. Setup a unique, yet not personally identifying SSID. If you have multiple APs, use the same SSID on each AP, to enable roaming by the clients.
    • The issue of Security is covered, in detail, in my article Setting Up A WiFi LAN? Please Protect Yourself!. Please note the above details.

Setup The Clients
Having made the necessary changes, you are free to turn the radio portion of the router on, and to setup the wireless clients. If your main computer also has a WiFi adapter, you can now remove the Ethernet cable between that computer and the router (but keep the cable handy for any future changes that you may make).

Setting up a wired LAN is simple - you connect the cables, things you can see and touch. With WiFi, you have the access point(s) out there - but you can't see or touch them. With WiFi, you setup the WiFi Client, which is a program provided by several vendors. Depending upon your setup, you may have any or all of these clients.

  • The computer manufacturer.
  • The WiFi adapter manufacturer.
  • Microsoft.
  • NetStumbler.

Before you install the WiFi adapter on your computer, check with the vendor, and see if any driver updates are available. This may include an update to the vendor's WiFi client.

Your access point can have only one WiFi Client managing it; having more than one Client active can cause conflicts. Conflicts can cause erratic performance, loss of connectivity, even the WiFi adapter may turn itself off. Know the possibilities, and only run one WiFi Manager at a time. If you choose to use the native Windows product - Wireless Zero Config aka WZC, consider applying the Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 / WPS IE (updated January 2007) update.

Each WiFi Client will present you with a list of visible access points. You choose, by signal strength, channels, and name, with which access points you wish to associate. The access points that you choose become your Preferred Access Points. The WiFi Client may periodically scan the spectrum for the strongest access point, and connect your computer to that access point. Note that this behaviour may be subject to SSID Visibility.

Any access points that you do not choose are still available for your use. Your WiFi Client probably has a selection to this effect - "Automatically connect to non-preferred networks", for instance, is a selection with the Windows Wireless Zero-Config Client. Make sure that this selection is not enabled automatically. You do not want your client to connect to your neighbors WLAN unexpectedly.

Some Clients also let you prioritise the preferred access points - so you make a list, then you order the list, from top (most preferred) to bottom (least preferred). Your client will then automatically connect you, at any time, to the more preferred access point that is available.

With any access point of interest, if it uses any authentication or encryption, you will have to enter the appropriate information. Your client will create a profile for that access point, and keep that profile available for the future. When you remove an access point from your preferred list, you will delete the profile. You will then have to re enter the profile information later.

Without the correct profile information, you cannot connect to the network provided by the access point. If your client tells you that you are connected (however strong the signal), but you have no IP configuration, check the profile. If in doubt, delete and re enter the profile.

Whenever you setup a WiFi client profile, make sure that you select the appropriate authentication options. Selecting 802.1x authentication, without the complete infrastructure, will cause problems.

When you setup the WiFi client, you'll be using the setup wizard provided by the vendor (or Microsoft). Understanding the above issues, and reading the instruction manual or guide for the WiFi equipment, is essential. See, for instance, Windows Cable Guy Windows XP Wireless Auto Configuration.

Tune The Wireless Setup
Having done the Initial Setup, and having Secured your WiFi LAN, you may want to tune the physical setup. Maximum bandwidth is based upon maximum signal strength. There are a few things that you can do, when installing the equipment, that will prevent you from getting maximum signal strength.

Having completed all of the above tasks, enjoy the freedom.

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