Guide to wireless broadband

Wireless broadband has established itself as must-have technology for many broadband internet users. In fact, it is estimated that around 6-7 million homes in the UK alone enjoy wireless access, a number that is growing rapidly as more and more users reap its benefits.

However, just what is wireless broadband? How does it work, what are its pros and its cons and what technology do you need? This guide to wireless broadband will give you the information you need to join the wireless revolution.

What is wireless broadband/wireless networking?

Broadly, when someone talks about 'wireless', there are two possible meanings - wireless broadband and wireless networking.

Wireless networking refers to having a 'wire free' computer in the house or office linked to a broadband connection. It is a method of linking all of the computers in one area (such as your home) to one internet connection through a wireless network. As the name suggests, by going wireless you do not need to have wires attaching each PC so they can share the internet connection - instead you use a wireless router which sends a signal to each computer using radio waves.

Wireless broadband, although often used as a general term to refer to all aspects of wireless technology and wireless internet, is also used to reference the most recent aspects of broadband technology where you have access to the internet outside your home, such as at Wi-Fi hotspots, using a laptop, or with a mobile phone handset.

For the sake of clarity, we shall refer to all aspects of wireless technology by the generic term 'wireless broadband' for the remainder of this guide.

You've probably already heard of wireless broadband, but why should you be interested in it? Is it really worth the extra expense to go wireless? This section will help you decide.

What are the pros and cons of wireless broadband?

The advantages...

The most obvious advantage of wireless broadband is straightforward - there are no wires! This means that you can get rid of all of your network cables and remove a lot of unnecessary clutter from your computer space at home.

Wireless also provides great freedom. As long as you have a laptop, you can make any room in the house your office because you should be able to pick up an internet connection - you could even surf the web in the garden!

There are also many other devices that can use wireless broadband technology such as mobile phones and games consoles. Wireless allows you to share hardware such as printers and DVD drivers, and you can communicate between machines and run multiplayer games.

Most new technology is also built around wireless internet including Voice over Internet Protocol, which allows you to have voice conversations over the web. This can offer huge savings compared to the average phone bill - and many broadband providers now offer internet calls as part of the package.

The disadvantages...

Most users have two main concerns with wireless broadband - security and health issues.

In fact, wireless is very secure as long as you use it wisely. You simply set a password that only computers on your network know to prevent other computers from gaining access to your network. Also, most wireless routers come with a firewall that offers extra protection for your computer.

The only problem is that internet users close to your home could gain access to your bandwidth. To avoid this you must install a password called a Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) or Wired Equipment Privacy (WEP) key. Most modern wireless routers will have one of these security features included automatically. WPA is the latest technology and is now available on most products.

In terms of health issues, there are some concerns raised in the national Press but there has yet to be any scientific evidence to truly substantiate these claims.

Of perhaps more pressing concern is the range that your wireless router offers. Sometimes signals can suffer through thick walls, or dead spots in your home. To avoid this you can buy larger aerials or you can introduce more wireless access points. The majority of users however, will enjoy the same high-speed access as they would through a regular wired internet connection.

Many users are reluctant to join the wireless revolution because they fear that setting up a home network will be difficult. However, it is actually straightforward. Though you should always follow the instructions that come with your wireless router, as each system may have slight differences, here is a general overview of how to set up a wireless connection.

How do you set up a wireless connection?

The first thing you need is a wireless router. There are many broadband providers that now offer wireless routers free as part of a package or at a reduced cost. Click on our broadband comparison tool to find out more.

This device is then plugged into the phone line and acts as the 'hub' of the wireless network - it is from here that all of the radio waves are sent to the other computers in your home/office space.

There are two main types of wireless router available - 802.11b, and the faster 802.11g, which can transmit data at 54Mbps, although there are also enhanced versions available which manufacturers claim can send and receive data at 125Mbps. You can also buy HomeRF products which are cheaper, but limited to around 1.2Mbps. Wireless router companies include D-Link, Netgear, Belkin, Linksys and Buffalo.

From there, every computer or device, such as a laptop, that you wish to connect to the wireless network will require a wireless network card. The majority of new laptops have these built in - but any computer or device that doesn't come with a wireless network card, will need one installing. They are relatively cheap to buy and installation is usually straightforward - you simply follow a series of instructions on your screen, as you would do with any programme. However, you must be careful to buy a wireless network card that will function alongside your router. Make sure they are compatible! In most cases it is best to buy a network card from the same manufacturer that provides your wireless router.

Another easier option is to buy a wireless USB kit, you still get a router as before but rather than putting a wireless data card into your laptop or PC you slot a wireless USB adapter into a USB port instead.

Once set-up is complete, the broadband connection enters via the phone line into your router, which then makes the internet connection wireless and sends a signal around the house.

Of course the key factor, to avoid frustration at a later stage, is to remember that your wireless router has a limited range, depending on how powerful it is - the more expensive the router, the more likely it is to have a wider range. Your service could be interrupted if you have thick walls or areas in your home that the wireless connection simply can't reach.

Have you heard of Wi-Fi but don't really understand it? This section of the wireless broadband guide will explain exactly what Wi-Fi is and how it works.

What is Wi-Fi and how does it work?

Wi-Fi is actually a wireless technology brand owned by the Wi-Fi Alliance. To put it in simple terms, it takes wireless technology to the next level by allowing users to access the internet via mobile phones, iPods, games consoles and more.

A Wi-Fi enabled device can access the internet when within range of a wireless network. As a result, many mobile phone manufacturers have established wireless hotspots around the country - these can be small rooms with wireless opaque walls or many square miles with overlapping access points.

The number of hotspots is expanding as Wi-Fi technology becomes more popular. Generally, they are found in public places which are regularly frequented by large numbers of people - such as at airports or train stations, along with hotels and motorway service stations. As their popularity expands they can be found in smaller venues such as cafes, restaurants and even public houses.

Many mobile phone providers now offer Wi-Fi technology as a subscription service, while others offer it through pay-as-you-go deals. You should think about how often you are likely to use the technology before deciding which is right for you. If you are constantly on the move and you regularly pass through areas with hotspots there can be substantial benefits to buying a Wi-Fi package deal. However, if you use it irregularly and for short periods, a pay-as-you-go deal will probably work out more cost-effective.

The capabilities of Wi-Fi technology have been expanded with the development of Wi-Max, which aims to provide wireless data over longer distances. This can be used to connect Wi-Fi hotspots to each other and provides connectivity while you're on the move.

What else does Wi-Fi technology offer?

Wi-Fi also allows you to connect in peer-to-peer mode - known as a wireless ad-hoc network. This is when devices connect directly to each other.

With this technology, you can share applications and other data. For example, you could take images on a camera phone with Wi-Fi capabilities and then transfer them to a digital camera or a PC.

As with all computer technology, there are many unique terms associated with wireless broadband which was once only used by computer fanatics but has now taken off in the mainstream. This section will help you bust that wireless jargon.

Wireless broadband jargon buster

802.11
- The most common form of wireless technology used to send and receive data. There are many variations available as outlined immediately below.
802.11a
- Runs at 54Mbps but the radio waves only have a range of around 45 metres.
802.11b
- Originally had speeds of around 11Mbps but this has been expanded on in more recent versions to around 22-44Mbps.
802.11g
- Transfers data at 54Mbps, though more recent models have speeds up to 125Mbps.
Ad-hoc mode
- Sometimes known as peer-to-peer networking, this allows wireless broadband devices to communicate with each other without a bridge. It is the method used to connect two PCs to the same internet connection.
Antenna
- Often used to improve the wireless range.
AP
- Standing for access point, this refers to the central location from which you gain internet access. In most homes this will be the wireless router, connected to the phone line.
Client/Server set-up
- The method of networking used by most large business with more than 10-15 computers. There is a dedicated server which receives messages from the 'client' computers quickly.
DHCP
- Meaning dynamic host configuration protocol, this allows individual computers to take information from a server.
DMZ
- Referring to a 'de-militarised zone', it is a protected network that sits between two networks.
Firewall
- Shuts out any unauthorised access to a network.
HomeRF
- A cheaper wireless technology for people who don't generally transfer too much data. The standard speed is around 1.2Mbps, though the HomeRF 2.0 has standard speeds up to 10Mbps.
Hotspots
- An area with strong wireless access - this could be a small room with wireless opaque walls, or a large area with several overlapping wireless access points.
Infrastructure mode
- Forms a connection between devices via a wired Ethernet network.
Peer-to-peer
- See 'ad-hoc mode'.
RJ45 Ethernet ports
- Used as an access point to connect wired and wireless devices.
Router
- The device that sends radio waves to other hardware in the immediate area, allowing them to access the internet.
Satellite broadband
- Allows you to surf the internet via signals sent to a satellite dish.
Server
- A computer that runs software which enables it to take requests from other computers.
VoIP
- Standing for voice over internet protocol, this refers to voice conversations carried out over the internet. There are many broadband packages that now include VoIP technology allowing you to make cheaper phone calls.
WEP
- Meaning Wired Equivalent Privacy, this was technology introduced as a security measure to stop other users in your area taking advantage of your wireless bandwidth. It has now been surpassed by WPA.
Wi-Fi
- A wireless technology brand that allows applications such as mobile phones to access the internet when they are within range of a wireless network.
Wi-Max
- A more powerful version of Wi-Fi, this enables internet access over a large area such as a city.
Wireless
- The general term used to refer to accessing broadband internet without wires.
Wireless cable
- This uses microwave frequencies sent over the air to an antenna on your roof.
Wireless DSL
- The term DSL stands for digital subscriber line. It refers to the data service over standard telephone lines.
WPA
- Standing for Wi-Fi Protected Access, this is the latest security technology to stop other users accessing your wireless broadband connection.

Hopefully by reading the earlier parts of this wireless broadband guide you now feel confident to proceed on your wireless journey. Here are some top tips to help you on your way.

Top tips for a better wireless experience

When buying:

During set-up, for better security:

When installing your Wi-Fi card:

Now you're a wireless expert it's time to go shopping - so here is a quick guide to finding the best wireless internet deals.

Where can you get wireless broadband?

As mentioned earlier in this guide, there are many broadband providers that now include wireless products as part of their package allowing you to secure cheap access to wireless internet.

If you are interested in securing a wireless device as part of your broadband package, use the broadband comparison tool to compare rates. All product details are listed and you will be able to find the cheapest deals in your area simply by entering your postcode.

Alternatively, you might wish to test out the latest Wi-Fi products and enjoy internet while you're on the move with mobile broadband. There are a number of providers offering packages in this area, including T-Mobile with the web'n'walk range.

Of course if you already have a broadband deal you are happy with, you might simply wish to go out and buy a router and a wireless access card. However, it's well worth shopping around for the cheapest broadband deals too, so you can make savings all around.

Resources
Related Links