While many have heard the good news of wireless networking, it is probable that most of you do not have personal experience with the technology known as 802.11b (Wi-Fi, or Aeroport for the Mac Heads in our midst). This is a shame, because for those with a soft spot in their heart for electronic gadgetry, there is little that scratches where it itches quite so satisfyingly as “wirelessing” your home.

The lighter side of wireless

This is not a technology that will save the world, or even a marriage – as strange as it may sound, surfing the Internet from your bed will not strike your spouse as a particularly romantic gesture! But there is fiendish pleasure to be found in reading your favorite online news daily as you stagger from the kitchen to the sun-drenched comfort of the front porch, staring raptly at the laptop in your left hand while holding a fresh mug of coffee in your right. Why? We don’t know. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not true, as Godel proved some time ago.

An infrastructured Wi-Fi network is constructed around a device called an Access Point, which, in conjunction with a router, connects the wireless part of your little network with the big wired one that comes into your home. It does this by grabbing any packets, or bundles of information, that it finds on the wired network and broadcasting them on the frequency used by cordless phones (2.4 GHz – in fact, the presence of a 2.4 GHz phone will affect your wireless performance). The 802.11b adapter card reads the packets from the access point’s broadcast, then hands them over to the PC.

It all sounds complicated and slow, but it isn’t. Wi-Fi is a fast protocol. In fact, at 11Mbps, (about 1 MP3 every 2-3 seconds), it is 10 percent faster than the old-school Ethernet used in traditional corporate networks and 10 times faster than a cable modem. It is relatively easy to set up as well, as PCMCIA cards are not hard to install. The range is also quite satisfactory. We have streamed video from the end of our driveway, ordered our groceries online from the kitchen, read news from our neighbor’s kitchen table, and have even turned our porcelain throne into a veritable seat of productivity.

The darker side of wireless

Alert readers will have noticed that a neighbor’s kitchen table is well within range of our access point. Why is this a problem? Strictly speaking, it is not a problem but two separate problems. For us, it is primarily a security problem. While we may trust some of our neighbors, not all neighbors, guests and passers-by fall within our circle of trust. Wired Equivalency Protocol (WEP) security that is included with most Wi-Fi adapters will keep out most electronic intruders, but the protocol is not fundamentally secure. Earlier this year, a group of Rice University students put about a week’s worth of their spare time and a couple hundred dollars into hacking their campus’ Wi-Fi 128-bit WEP network. As it turns out, most of the week was spent deciding which wireless card to buy and waiting for it to arrive, whereas the actual hacking of the network took only a few hours.

The Rice attack will work on all Wi-Fi packages, and by now it is likely that similar hacking applications are floating around the Internet’s more unsavory corners, allowing less technically sophisticated snoops to poke their electronic noses where they do not belong. Once a hacker has a network’s WEP key, it is as if that hacker’s computer were connected to the network, which is not A Good Thing. However, it is possible to use Wi-Fi with nearly impenetrable security; all you need to do is place the access point outside your firewall, then SSH or VPN in. However, if this sounds like gibberish to you, best not to mess with it; just pay somebody else to set it up for you.

And seriously, the security issue isn’t a major one for most people. The likelihood of any given person living within the range of a technically adept sociopath is roughly 1 in 38,270, slightly higher if you live in an apartment. Simple precautions such as periodically changing your WEP key and keeping updated with the latest drivers will add some security as well. In truth, your mailbox is less secure, and besides, it’s not like the FBI isn’t keeping electronic tabs on you already with Echelon and Carnivore. If you’re not encrypting everything already, you’re not really serious about security, so don’t worry about it.

The lighter side of the darker side of wireless

The second problem with the wireless network’s range is not a problem for us so much as for our ISP. Wi-Fi has an indoor range billed at 300 feet. While this number has more to do with marketing than objective reality, it isn’t wholly incorrect, and the outdoor range makes it quite possible for someone to share bandwidth with his neighbors. If people chose to violate their service contracts and share Internet access with their neighbors in this way, the market size for DSL and cable modem services in this country would shrink like the projected federal budget surplus.

Is this sort of thing common? Right now, it’s not so prevalent that executives at telecommunications companies spend sleepless nights desperately trying to forget about it, but it is difficult for a service provider to determine if the people using the line actually live at the address that is sending them the checks. In practice, it would be almost impossible for a telecommunications company to know anything was awry unless one of these bandwidth lampreys was to call the ISP for technical support. Not that we recommend such a thing, you understand.

Keep in mind that not all bandwidth sharing is considered beyond the pale. There are areas of shared wireless access where a Wi-Fi connection to the Internet is considered a basic right, which, to be fair, certainly aids in the pursuit of our happiness. Universities are providing wireless access in their classrooms and libraries; coffee shops have installed Wi-Fi to allow their patrons’ access to the Web; and, of course, corporations have installed it to allow some means of escape to employees trapped in meetings that bear suspicious similarities to the work of a certain French philosopher-playwright.

If you decide to equip your home network with Wi-Fi equipment, and you should, you can buy the equipment at just about any major computer store. Many Internet retailers are also quite happy to send you wireless gear in return for nothing more than a name and a 16-digit number. An access point and a couple of cards will run you about $500 if you go with the popular LinkSys brand, and their product doubles as a DSL/Cable Modem router if you don’t have one already. It is not necessary to have your access point match brands with your adapter cards, although matching brands will provide some convenience with regards to system configuration. Otherwise, you must always make sure that both brands support WEP. So, surfers, loose the cables of your oppression and be free!

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Here is a big one you are not smart enough to know about. … MAC and digital cameras get along GREAT, tough (expletive deleted) to you Microstupid users. Makes us Mac owners laugh like hell @ you windoze users.

THUS SPAKE VOX: The cretinous and inaccurate content of this missive aside, we admit that we had not previously considered the interests of Mac users, nor those of other, less popular OSs such as UNIX or LINUX in its myriad of forms. Naturally, we are a master of all human-machine dialects, and we also remember our first Apple II with great fondness. So if WND readers would like to see the occasional discussion of Mac-related issues, e-mail us, and if enough interest is demonstrated, we shall endeavor to touch base with Apple.

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