Weaving An Untangled Wi-Fi Web

Setup can be torture and security weak, but the joys of going wireless are many

I lie in bed with a laptop across my knees, surfing the Web. The latest issue of The New Yorker hasn't landed in my mailbox yet, so I check it out online, read a scathing piece by Seymour Hersh on conflicts between the White House and the intelligence community -- then jump over to Apple Computer (AAPL )'s iTunes Music Store. There's a Yo La Tengo album I missed when it was released earlier in the year, which I download for just under 10 bucks. When I'm finished, there are no wires to untangle before I nod off. I simply slide the laptop onto the nightstand and snap off the light.

Ah, Wi-Fi. It's hard to overstate the convenience of this technology, which you can think of as spraying bandwidth around your home or office. Once you plug a wireless router into your cable modem or DSL box, any computer with a Wi-Fi antenna in a roughly 300-foot radius can share the connection without any cables. The technology is now supported by all the tech industry's big guns, from Intel (INTC ) to Verizon Communications (VZ ). That has brought hardware prices down in the past year to just $100 to $200, tops. Creating a "hot spot" is still a hassle, as I learned last month when I unwired my New York City apartment. But the ends still justified the torture, which was roughly as follows:


After buying a Wi-Fi router from Linksys at the local electronics store, I dropped the enclosed CD into my desktop so it would walk me through the router installation. The CD informed me that the computer wasn't connected to the Net -- even though it was. I ran it a second time. Then a third, but no luck. So I turned to the "Quick Installation Guide" booklet, which was neither quick nor much of a guide. I rebooted several times, unplugged the router, reran the CD, and finally called Linksys' tech support.

It was midnight in New York, but after 22 minutes on hold, I got someone named Francis who works in Manila. He was great, walking me through various tests, and ultimately figuring out that my computer's firewall was fighting with the one in the router. So we disabled my Norton (SYMC ) firewall, reconnected, rebooted, and -- voila! -- bandwidth to burn. When the router stopped working a few days later because of faulty software, Linksys' tech support got me back on track with no fuss.

A couple of words of caution, however. First, Wi-Fi networks can be vulnerable to prying eyes. Determined hackers can worm their way into your network and capture everything from your logon names and passwords to your Quicken files, despite standard Wi-Fi encryption that you activate when you set up your hot spot. How likely this scenario is depends on who and where you are. One thing security mavens agree on is that a lightly guarded Wi-Fi network is easier to hack than a lightly protected hardwired cable or DSL connection.

Also, watch out for misleading sales pitches. Companies want to sell you the latest Wi-Fi flavor, called 802.11g. It transmits data at 54 megabits per second, compared with 11 megabits for the older 802.11b version. But don't be fooled: Those speeds are only achieved among your computers, peripherals, and your router. How fast you cruise the Net is limited by the speed of your broadband link. If your cable modem delivers 1 megabit per second, that's the speed you'll be surfing eBay (EBAY ) or Amazon.com (AMZN ).

Such caveats aside, Wi-Fi brings great joy to the wire-weary and bandwidth-deprived. Ask Debbie Exton, a 45-year-old office manager at an insurance agency in Arlington Heights, Ill., who installed her network this summer: "You can be in the kitchen, or if it's a nice day, out on the balcony," she says. "I love it!" That makes two of us.

By Peter Elstrom

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