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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Look Ma, No Wires: Easy Steps to a Wireless Net

Easy steps to a wireless network.
By Donald St. John
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Credit: Illusions Photodisc / Getty Images

If you're tired of taping down cables or ripping out walls to get online, then you're ready for Wi-Fi -- the catch name for several technical standards that let you establish a high-speed connection to the Internet using a radio signal.

Let's say you want to install a Wi-Fi network in your school's library. You can set it up in a few simple steps:

1) First, you'll need a wired connection running into the room that receives your Internet connection -- DSL, cable, or a T-1 line. It will come in through a modem configured for that service and is usually offered by your networking service provider. For a single PC, the connection goes directly to the machine. A network, though, requires a little box called a router ($50-$100) with an antenna, using ethernet (or CAT-5) cable. (Linksys, NetGear, D-Link, and Microsoft make these devices.) Routers come in two standards, 802.11b and 802.11g; "g" is five times faster than "b." (For Macintosh users, the names are AirPort and AirPort Extreme; you'll want Extreme.)

2) If they didn't come preinstalled with wireless cards, your computers will also need adapter cards ($50-$75 each) to receive the Wi-Fi signal, and they will need to be equipped with software that finds it. That will take a little work if you're using an older version of Windows, but if you have newer machines that use Windows XP, you're in luck -- XP makes finding a Wi-Fi signal easy.

3) Install the adapter card into the PCs to receive the signal. This step entails opening up each computer, plugging in a PCI adapter, and sliding the small antenna card into the slot in the adapter you've just installed. Each system (router and adapter) comes with a disc that walks you through the installation. Pick a channel to broadcast and receive on; there are eleven for the United States, and Wi-Fi networks usually use channels 1, 6, and 11 so they don't interfere with other channels. (See "Jargon Buster" below.)

4) Select your channel and you're set.

Installing Wi-Fi is simple and should take about ninety minutes. But you may run into a few glitches. For one, Wi-Fi networks run on a 2.4-GHz signal, the same frequency many cordless telephones use. If you find that a phone is interfering with the Wi-Fi signal, the usual solution is either to move the phone out of range or to get a 900-MHz phone, which won't interfere with the Wi-Fi.

The signal typically works well at 100-150 feet, although you can extend the range and work around corners by using extra access points to repeat the signal. Drywall and glass usually won't interrupt it, but stone or cinder block can; the clearer the line of sight between an access point and a PC, the better the reception.

Another issue is security. If your room is close to the outside world -- say, if there's a coffee shop beyond the library wall -- your neighbor may be able to pick up your signal. Odds are, though, that will be a problem only at a school in a dense urban area, and in virtually no time you'll have set up a simple conduit to the unlimited educational opportunities available online.

For more information, visit Wi-Fi Net News or Wi-Fi Planet.

Donald St. John is a veteran technology journalist based in Amherst, Massachusetts. Write to dgstjohn@comcast.net.

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