Home Wireless Networks: Lots of Strings

They're supposed to be the next big thing, but a test of two rival systems finds any number of bumps on the road to plug-and-play

By David Rocks

I'm normally a pretty patient guy. But when it comes to computer equipment, I like it simple: Turn things on, and get to work. Sure, I'll read the instruction booklet, but one go-through is plenty before plugging and playing. So imagine my disappointment when, after weeks of tinkering, I still couldn't get my home wireless network running consistently.

Why bother if it's such a hassle? I had heard about the growth of home wireless networking using the WiFi standard -- also known as 802.11b. Some 4.5 million U.S. homes are expected to have such a network by yearend -- three times the number today. And the more I learned about these networks, the more I wanted one. They let you share a high-speed Internet connection, print from every computer on the system to any printer that's hooked up, and retrieve files or play MP3 songs stored on any hard drive that's on the network.

Problem is, it's still too tough for mere mortals to pull it all together. To get my system running, I had to become far more conversant with networking technology than I ever wanted. Should you decide to install one, you, too, are likely to become familiar with an alphabet soup of networking terms such as TCP/IP, DNS, IP addressing, and DHCP servers. Sure, I've learned a thing or two, but if these things are going to reach a mass market, manufacturers need to make them as easy to set up as, say, a VCR.


  I wanted a combination wireless access point and router. These systems, costing around $200, hook into your cable or DSL modem. The access point provides wireless connections to PCs with wireless cards (which typically cost between $50 and $150 each). The router portion of the machine serves as a traffic cop on your network, letting your computers talk to one another and ensuring smooth data flows from the Internet to all the various networked PCs. Routers also provide extra security by masking the computers on the network from anyone trying to hack in through something called a network address translation firewall.

The systems I tried came from Linksys and Actiontec, and in the end, I found the Linksys preferable. Depending on the specifics of your network, though, the Actiontec could also work fine. Both were far from perfect, however.

I started with the Actiontec. I quickly hooked the $200 machine up to my cable modem and one of my computers. From my Web browser, I entered the address of the router and then went through a quick configuration process, changing only a handful of settings. I soon had a network running among the five computers in my house, including a Macintosh iBook.


  Problem was, the Actiontec dropped its connection to my cable modem after a day or so. I called the company's support hotline and found eager young techies who told me to turn the system off and turn it back on again -- the most common remedy in the networking world, as it turns out. So I turned off my computers, trudged upstairs to the office, unplugged the modem and router, then restarted everything. That's a 10 to 15 minute process and a pain in the neck.

The trick worked -- but only for a few hours. After several days of rebooting, I called Actiontec again, and got another techie who told me that yes, the firmware -- software that's burned into the system's memory -- was notorious for dropping the connection with the Motorola cable modem I was using.

At his urging, I upgraded the firmware. It was easy: He e-mailed me a small file, I loaded it onto my computer, rebooted everything, and was on my way -- or so I thought. The signal between the modem and the router was stable, but one of my computers, a Dell laptop with a built-in wireless card, couldn't communicate with the router.


  I called the tech-support guys -- whom I soon got know on a first-name basis -- and they offered another firmware upgrade. That got the Dell working, but I lost the connection with the modem again. My buddies at Actiontec assure me that they have the problem licked with a new version of their firmware, but I was ready to move on.

The Linksys was easier, but it still presented too many problems. The setup process was similar to the Actiontec. I was able to quickly get the $180 machine up and running and share my Internet connection. Getting my computers to communicate with one another, though, proved much tougher. I thought a quick call to Linksys -- which prides itself on customer service -- might take care of the problem. But after 45 minutes on hold, I was told that the company didn't help with network set up. If I could get online, the device was working, as far as they were concerned.

The techie I spoke with did direct me to a Web site that was supposed to help me configure my network, but after digging around there for an hour I was more baffled than ever. One point of confusion: Networking texts I had read said you need to assign an IP address (IP stands for Internet protocol, if you must know) to each computer on your network.


  What they don't say is that newer products, such as both the Actiontec and the Linksys, include something called DHCP, or dynamic host configuration protocol. This handy feature doles out IP addresses to computers on your network, so you don't have to. It's convenient. But nowhere in the Linksys or Actiontec documentation did I see an adequate explanation of what DHCP is and why it's beneficial, so I kept second-guessing myself and tried to set IP addresses for my computers -- which only confuses the system.

In frustration, I finally called someone I know at Linksys, who got a techie to call me. After nearly an hour on the phone (during which time he asked me to reboot the system several times), we had gotten nowhere. Then I mentioned that I was using Norton's Internet Security 2002 firewall as protection from hackers. "A real network killer," the techie said. I disabled Norton on all of my computers, and had the network up and running within minutes.

To be fair, the problems I encountered weren't entirely the fault of the manufacturers. If I hadn't loaded Norton's firewall -- which isn't necessary, because the router provides similar protection -- the Linksys would probably have worked fine within a half-hour of pulling it out of the box. I was, though, disappointed that the first techie I spoke with at Linksys brushed me off so quickly.


  Without my Motorola cable modem and my Dell laptop, the Actiontec would, presumably, have worked out fine -- although it's unclear whether the blame for those problems lies with Actiontec, Dell, Motorola, or elsewhere. And while other aspects of setup on both systems aren't as straightforward as they should be -- there's too much tweaking of settings on your computer -- that's as much a problem with PC makers and Microsoft as it is Actiontec or Linksys.

The bottom line is that both systems are adequate, but neither is as good as it should be. If you're lucky and have the right combination of machines, you might well be able to set them up in a snap. But my experience was a succession of small problems that kept me scratching your head and poring over manuals for hours. These -- and other WiFi systems I've tried -- are still too complicated to reach the mass market.

Rocks covers technology for BusinessWeek

Edited by Alex Salkever

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