Guide to wireless broadband

Couple using laptop in a kitchen

Read about the advantages and disadvantages of wireless broadband and use our guide to help you decide if it is for you.

Wireless broadband is a must-have technology for broadband internet users. In fact, it is estimated that around 75% of 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?

Wireless technology at home is often split into two distinct options - wireless broadband and wireless networking, each of which means a slightly different thing.

Wireless networking refers to having a 'wire-free' computer in the house or office linked to a broadband connection. It is a way of linking all of the computers in your house to one internet connection through a wireless network. As the name suggests, by going wireless you do not need to have wires attaching each computer so they can share the internet connection - instead you just use a wireless router which sends a signal to each computer, simple right?

Wireless broadband is a bit different, although it’s often used as a general term to refer to all aspects of wireless technology and wireless internet, it's also used as a name for when you have access to the internet in a public place, like Wi-Fi hotspots that you can find almost anywhere in the UK nowadays, which are often used for internet connections for laptops, tablets or smartphones.

But because of its popularity and to make things simpler, we’ll just use ‘wireless broadband’ through the rest of this online guide.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you’ve probably already heard of wireless broadband, but why should you be interested in it? Is it really worth the extra expense to get rid of all those cables? This section will help you decide.

What are the pros and cons of wireless broadband?

The advantages...

The main advantage to wireless broadband is a pretty obvious one - 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 pretty much 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 as long as the weathers nice!

There are plenty other devices capable of using wireless broadband technology as well, with smartphones, tablets and games consoles the most commonly used hardware, but even some refrigerators and other unlikely pieces of kit are compatible now for some less than practical reasons. Of course, wireless allows you to manage practical uses as well, like sharing hardware such as printers and scanners, so the opportunities really are endless.

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 offer internet calls as part of their different packages.

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. If you leave it open for any so and so to use you’re almost asking for trouble, but if you set a password that only computers on your network know to prevent other computers from gaining access to your network it’s as safe as houses. Also, most wireless routers come with a firewall that offers extra protection for your computer, so those internet viruses you always hear about are kept at bay as well.

The only problem is that internet users close to your home could gain access to your bandwidth. To avoid this you should use 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. You can find this password on the back of your router, which is normally just a mix-match of random letters for complete protection.

In terms of health issues, there is absolutely zero evidence to back up some extreme claims of health problems caused by wireless broadband, so you needn’t worry about coming down with the flu because you decided to pick up a wireless router.

A more realistic 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 signal boosters 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, no matter where they happen to be in their home.

Setting up a wireless connection is an extremely easy task, so if you’re worried about it creating too much work you shouldn’t worry. All the instructions are given with any piece of kit you buy in plain English, and often all it requires is some simple plugging in of cables and you’re up and running.

How do you set up a wireless connection?

The first thing you’ll need is a wireless router, and thankfully most broadband providers offer one for free (or at a reduced price) as part of their packages. Click on our broadband comparison tool to find out more.

This device is then plugged in 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 and devices in your home/office space.

There are two main types of wireless connections available- 2.4GHz and 5GHz, sometimes referred to as 2G and 5G for short. A ‘single band’ router works through only one of these different speeds, whilst a ‘dual band’ router will offer both types of connection. Different devices prefer different connections, depending on their power, so an older computer, smartphone or tablet will tend to work with the 2G connection, whilst high powered computers and the latest games consoles will go for 5G if available. It’s worth noting that 5G is faster, but 5G devices can also work with a 2G connection, they only prefer the 5G so they can work at the best speeds.

Every computer or device, such as a laptop, that you wish to connect to your wireless network will require a wireless network card. You shouldn’t have to worry too much about this, as pretty much every new device have these built in. But, if you do happen to come across something without one, you 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, just make sure that the card you are installing works with your specific router. Some good advice is to buy a network card from the same manufacturer that provides your wireless router, as it’s likely they’ll get on a bit better than two different manufacturers would.

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 computer, you slot a wireless USB adapter into a USB port instead and it essentially does the same job.

Of course something to remember is that your wireless router has a limited range, no matter how powerful it is. Now, the more expensive the router, the more likely it is to have a wider range, but even if you have the most expensive router on the market, your service could still 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 often wrongly referred to as a wireless internet connection of any kind, but it’s 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 smartphones, tablets, 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 networks have established wireless hotspots around the country which can vary in size; some covering small parks, whilst some can cover much larger outdoor areas.

The number of hotspots has grown dramatically as Wi-Fi technology has become more popular. Whilst they started life in some new airports and train stations, they have since found their way into thousands of restaurants and cafes; there are even park benches and phone boxes which now produce Wi-Fi signals for the public to use, meaning you shouldn’t have to worry about finding an internet connection in some more advanced cities.

Wi-Fi is now a common sight in all new smartphones, tablets and other handheld devices, and using it offers a way to avoid using up valuable data from mobile contracts which can be fairly expensive if you go over your data allowance. The capabilities of Wi-Fi technology have also 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 without being forced to plug in any cables, meaning the wireless fun can continue even if you aren’t planning on browsing any websites.

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

Wireless broadband jargon buster

2G - Short for 2.4GHz connection, a style of connection that is used by the majority of wireless devices. Sometimes referred to as ‘single-band’ if a router can only use this style connection.

5G - Short for 5GHz connection, a faster style of connection that is only used by devices capable of using the service, like some games consoles and more powerful computers. Sometimes referred to as ‘dual-band’ if a router use this and a 2G connection.

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 – they can vary in size from single rooms to larger areas, like parks or towns.

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:

  • Ask first! Many broadband providers offer free routers as part of a package, meaning you might not have to shell out to get one beforehand. Search for the cheapest broadband deals using the broadband comparison tool and look to see which providers offer wireless routers as part of the deal. This could save you a fair bit of cash!

During set-up, for better security:

  • Check the factory password - Always check the router password to see if it’s something hard to guess or other users could gain free access. Try to pick something that isn't obvious: password, internet, 12345 or abcde aren’t good options. A combination of letters, numbers and symbols works best, also remember to use upper and lower case letters, it makes it pretty much impossible to hijack your connection this way.
  • Enable encryption - If you don't enable encryption, everyone in range can read your emails, etc. Turn it on!
  • Turn off ping responses - This will not be possible on all computers, but if you can do it, it will increase your security.
  • Change the router name – Not essential for security, but extremely helpful, try to avoid putting anything which could be used to identify you, for example using your address or name isn’t the best idea, unless you are a business, then it’s good to use your company name for offering up Wi-Fi to customers.

If installing a Wi-Fi card:

  • Visit the manufacturer's website - Make sure you have all of the latest drivers installed on your hard-drive and that it’s compatible with the computer you’re trying to use it with.
  • Install drivers first - If you are missing any drivers, ensure you have these installed before you begin installation of your Wi-Fi card.
  • Check your connections - Before you spend a tonne of money, check all your connections – you’d be surprised how many times a pet has pulled out a cable, or if it’s simply not plugged in properly. Check that all the lights that are meant to be on with your router are on, also, try turning it off and on, this solution works for a heck of a lot of problems.
  • Disable security – Clashing security measures can cause connection problems! It might sound like a good idea to be safe, but too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Disable them to check, but if the problem is being caused elsewhere, make sure you turn them back on, otherwise you might be sorry.
  • Avoid interference - Microwave ovens can cause havoc with wireless connections, as can anything that use a similar frequency to wireless internet. It’s best to make sure you haven’t got any devices like this by your router.
  • Make sure your device is well-positioned – As a rule of thumb, if it takes less than 30 seconds for you to reach your router from anywhere in your house (the average sized house of course) then it’s unlikely that any devices where you are won’t be able to connect to it. Try and place it somewhere central and where it’s easy to reach, it’ll only create less work in the long run.
  • Consider a range-extending product – If you can’t get signal from your router because of distance, try picking up a signal booster, remember, the further you are from your router, the slower your connection could be.

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 here and you will be able to find the cheapest deals in your area simply by entering your postcode.

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.

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