Why Wireless?

Although you could certainly argue that you don’t need to understand how wireless works to use it, as with all technologies, a basic understanding certainly helps when it comes to setup and troubleshooting.

As an example, people who have trouble setting up their multi-component stereos also have difficulty figuring out why one component doesn’t work with the group as a whole, even if the problem is only with which wire goes where.

More significantly for computer users, not understanding even the most basic details of how computer viruses spread has ensured not only that viruses spread like wildfire, but also that virus hoax e-mail messages spread as well.

One of the overarching solutions for technology use is understanding the technology you’re using, at least to the degree that you can determine what might be going wrong. We don’t mean to suggest, of course, that you need to be an expert. Far from it.

But when it comes to anything to do with computer networking—the subject much deals with—knowing where to begin troubleshooting helps a great deal. In all our years of working with PCs, two things have always continued to astound us: the fact that PCs work at all, and the fact that you can get a group of them to work together.

When you toss the concept of wireless into the bin, it goes beyond astonishment toward, well, magic. Arthur C. Clarke’s great statement, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” applies quite nicely, for many people, to computers, networking, and wireless communication.

If the trend to wireless continues as it is, pretty soon you won’t hear the word “wireless” at all, because there won’t be any need for it. Once everything is wireless, and that does seem to be the direction in which we’re heading, distinguishing between wireless and wired will no longer hold any useful meaning.

Until that time, however, you’re going to hear “wireless” more and more with each passing year, maybe even each passing month, so it makes sense to know exactly what the word entails. Wireless means, of course, without wires.

All wireless communication takes place over radio waves, electromagnetic waves that carry signals. To be considered a wireless network, radio waves have to carry the signal at least part of the way.

The greater the proportion of wireless to wired, the more wireless we consider the network. Take a pair of walkie-talkies, for example. Each walkie-talkie contains wires within its physical structure, but we consider walkie-talkie communication wholly wireless.

Of course, many kids have experimented with a more primitive form of walkie-talkie, joining two soup cans together with a piece of string (although metal wire works much better), and that, basically, demonstrates the difference.

Take away the string and you need another way of sending the signal (beyond shouting). Radio waves do the trick. Keep in mind, in fact, that the radio itself was originally called a wireless. The tin cans versus walkie-talkie comparison also helps convey the primary reason for the proliferation of wireless communications.

You can expect even a cheap walkie-talkie to let you talk to someone a few rooms away, even further if you go outside. To accomplish the same effect with your soup cans, you need a longer and longer wire between them, and in some cases the wired connection becomes difficult.

You are, in industry terms, tethered to the other communicator. In the same way, when you talk on a standard telephone set, you’re tethered to the wall. Wires tether. One of the primary attractions to wireless technology is its ability to untether you, thereby giving you the freedom to move around.

In industry terms, you gain mobility; you are mobile. With all the obvious advantages to going wireless, you might be wondering why wireless solutions aren’t even more pervasive than they already are. There are three answers: cost, reliability, and speed.

Connecting through radio waves is simply more complex than connecting through wires, and without the physical connection, more problems can occur with the transmission. Very little interferes with a wired connection, but many sources of interference plague radio transmissions.

With wireless, you’re asking your signal to fly through the air and be picked up by another specific device, without any other device interfering with it in the meantime or stealing the signal right out of the air. Wires make the process significantly easier, with a clearer signal path and a more limited transmission.

On top of all of these advantages, wired connections are faster and have better security. Add it all up, and you have greater expense for development, greater expense for implementation, greater expense all around. Wireless costs. In fact, wireless has only one real advantage over wired: no wires.

Its point, and a point that is absolutely beyond argument, is that wires restrict movement. More philosophically, for technology to perform its primary function of making people’s lives better or easier or somehow richer, technology should strive to become more and more like a part of the person it’s serving.

You should be able to use it without having a wire hanging out of it. To say nothing of aesthetics: Wires, according to some people, just don’t look good when strung all over the house. Go figure. From the standpoint, most news items you read today, wireless has two major streams: computer networking and telephony.

Wireless computer networking refers to networks that rely in part on data transfers over a radio connection. Typically, the connection occurs at the user’s device—laptop, PDA, and so on—with the network adapter card inside the device acting as a transmitter and receiver in an exchange of signals with the network.

It’s entirely possible to have a network that relies on wireless transfers in between wired components, but usually they’re not set up in such a manner. Whenever the term wireless LAN or WLAN appears, it is referring to a network in which the user device includes wireless adapter technology that connects to the network via radio waves.

The primary standard for wireless LAN technology is IEEE 802.11, with 802.11g currently in the throes of rendering the venerable 802.11b yesterday’s news. Well, venerable in computer terms, at least, where anything over two years old borders on the truly antique.

Wireless telephony takes two major forms: cordless phones and cellular phones. Cordless phones don’t really do much that normal phones can’t do, and they do a lot less than cell phones. Their primary interest in this discussion lies in whether or not they generate interference for other wireless signals, or vice versa.

Cell phone technology, on the other hand, does play a significant role, just as it has, increasingly, out in the world. Cell phones represent the most significant release from tethered communications technology we’ve seen yet, and in fact have changed the very concept of telephony.

Not long ago, telephones were associated with a place—an office, a street corner, a house, even a specific location in a house—but cell phones are associated with a person.

Cell phones represent the first mass-market communications technology to go wherever its human owner takes it, remaining available for use at all times.

Sociologists and psychologists have only begun to suggest the enormous difference this particular set of wireless technologies (cellular telephony is far more than just one) will have on its users.

But you don’t need experts to tell you some of the differences: Just watch teenagers with their cell phones, constantly checking for new voice or text messages, and you’ll see how technology can dominate the day’s activities. E-mail can do the same thing, of course, but the cell phone has the aura of even greater personal attachment.

Wireless networking and cellular telephony have been in the news as much as—perhaps more than—any other technology over the last half of 2003 and the first of 2004. That’s unlikely to change because the charm of mobility has so far outstripped the fear of data theft and bandwidth intrusion.

But as much as McDonald’s, university campuses, and all those wireless coffee shops would like you to take advantage of the easy Internet access provided by wireless local area and wide area networks, problems await and threaten to derail everyone’s best laid plans.

Over the next years, you’re certain to see an increase in concerns about identity theft, corporate hacking, and every other type of illegal computer activity, and many of these concerns will relate specifically to wireless in all its forms.

But so will some of the great changes and advances in how people connect to their networks, including and especially the Internet itself, and those things make all the effort worthwhile.