Pros and Cons of Wireless Networks

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Many people today do not realize the first wireless standards were ratified in 1999, with wireless equipment appearing shortly after. Unfortunately, because of the high cost of the equipment necessary for implementing a wireless network, very few were deployed in the beginning.



But as more companies and users purchase laptops with integrated wireless network cards, and the cost of wireless devices decreases, wireless networks are becoming much more common. For those considering installation of a wireless network, the pros and cons must be weighed before making the final decision.



The biggest advantage of wireless networks is the convenience of such networks — cables are no longer required to go to each machine on the network. With proper planning and design, a wireless network can provide coverage to vital areas with limited cabling requirements. Often, the only network cabling necessary is an Ethernet cable to the access point itself.



In addition, some access points can take advantage of Power over Ethernet (PoE), either by use of a power injector or a switch that provides PoE. This eliminates the need to ensure a power outlet is near the access point.



Of course, with the convenience of wireless come the problems, including interference to the network from outside sources.


Potential sources of interference include some microwave ovens, cordless phones or even other wireless networks on the same channel or an overlapping channel. These sources will affect the wireless network’s reliability by either reducing the network’s range or effectiveness, possibly blocking access to the network.



Another potential problem is due to the nature of a wireless network — because the signal travels through the air, often leaking outside the office or building where the network is, this presents the possibility of unauthorized access to the network.


To help reduce this risk, various wireless encryption standards have been developed in an effort to protect the network from unauthorized access and protect the data sent over the wireless network.



The first of these encryption standards was Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). Unfortunately, WEP was found to have serious issues that allowed an attacker to easily break the encryption used. Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) was created in an effort to solve the issues discovered in WEP. This was followed later by Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2), which improved upon the encryption by using Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to encrypt the data.



The final — and probably biggest — potential problem with wireless networks is bandwidth.



One of the first wireless standards, 802.11b, supports up to 11 Mbps speeds, with a typical speed of about 6.5 Mbps. The first wireless standard, 802.11a, and a later standard, 802.11g, both support speeds of up to 54 Mbps, with about 24 to 25 Mbps being typical.



By contrast, the new 802.11n standard is being developed with a maximum speed of 540 Mbps and a typical speed of 200 Mbps.



All these wireless standards share one major problem, however: the available bandwidth is shared among all devices on the network. This means that even with an 802.11n network, the more users there are on the network, the less bandwidth is available for each user.



Also, because the bandwidth is shared, one device on the network can potentially use all the available bandwidth, thus limiting other devices or preventing them from connecting altogether. This can become a serious problem when transferring large files over the wireless network.



Although wireless networks can be quite useful, serious consideration should be given to their intended use, and steps should be taken to alleviate the potential pitfalls. With proper design and by setting appropriate expectations, wireless networks can become an essential part of any business’ network.


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