No Strings Attached

Photos by Eric Yang

Computer networking isn't a subject you'd necessarily expect to read about in Sound & Vision. But because more and more home-entertainment gear wants to get connected to the Internet and because networking is a viable way to distribute compressed audio and video, it makes sense for us to look at where home networks are today. Fortunately, new wireless devices make it easier than ever to put a network in your home.

What could you do with a wireless home network? You could access TV-related chat rooms using your laptop as you lounged in front of the tube. You could listen in the family room to music files stored on the home-office PC, or transfer the same files to a digital music server for playback in your main A/V system. You could listen to streaming radio in the kitchen as you check your e-mail, or keep your eye on the Web cam aimed at the front walkway while waiting for a delivery. That's on top of more mundane things like printing a file from your laptop on the home-office printer without having to hook up wires.

While local-area networks (LANs) are nothing new, they've changed dramatically over the years. Even home LANs are old hat, but they're changing, too. I remember installing a small network in my home office in the early '90s. When I finished the business project I was working on, I disassembled the network - keeping it running didn't seem worth the maintenance hassles and the complexity. This, of course, was before networking capability was built into Windows. Back then the "sneaker net" - transferring files to another computer by walking over to it with a floppy - was sufficient for most purposes. But recently I installed a home network again, and the reason had nothing to do with any business project.

An Intel AnyPoint PC Card wireless network adapter ($99).
Like most people putting in home networks today, I installed my new one primarily to share a fast Internet connection with other PCs in the house. It was only later - after I added an Internet-connected digital music server - that I realized the entertainment potential and extended my network to distribute audio and Internet video. Deciding that I needed a network was easy. Deciding on the most sensible way to build it and connect the computers to it was a little more difficult. From experience, I knew that installing a traditional LAN in an existing home could be a challenge. That's when I decided to give wireless networking a try.

Wireless Is Now

While it might seem like wireless networking has just burst on the scene, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) started work on wireless Ethernet in the early 1980s. The resulting standard, officially dubbed IEEE 802.11b, was finally adopted in 1999. That same year, Apple Computer was first to market with its AirPort 802.11b wireless network components. Since 802.11b isn't exactly a name that a marketing guy can love, it's now often called Wi-Fi, for "wireless fidelity."

A USB adapter ($109).
Wireless networking is hardly just for home networks. It's become popular in office complexes, where users can move from office to meeting room and still stay connected to the corporate network, and in schools, where students can stay connected as they move from dorm room to classroom. Of 600 public and private colleges and universities that participated in the 2001 Campus Computing Survey, more than half had wireless LANs, up from 30% in 2000. Wireless Internet access "on the go" is becoming increasingly common, too, with wireless "hot spots" popping up across the nation. For example, Starbucks is expected to have wireless access available for a fee at 70% of its caf├ęs this year. Access is also available in many airports and hotels.

Free-access hot spots are even starting to crop up in public spaces, like Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. Park administrators had originally planned to provide Internet ports in only one section of the small park, but they decided instead to blanket the entire space with a Wi-Fi network in hopes that the lunchtime crowds would linger a little longer. In Jacksonville, Florida, the city's first wireless Internet zone is active in the Jacksonville Landing entertainment and dining complex. Plans are to extend the network citywide with either corporate sponsorship or subscription areas. There's also a grass-roots effort to encourage businesses and homeowners with high-speed access to share it wirelessly. (See "Brave New Home," page 34, for more on this.)

Home Wi-Fi Basics

Thanks to Wi-Fi's popularity in the business world, the equipment has become cheap and reliable enough for the home market. It's easy to install - and getting easier, with the latest Windows and Macintosh operating systems designed to make sharing wireless networking and Internet connections painless. A typical home Wi-Fi network is installed something like a cordless phone - though that's a greatly simplified analogy. With a cordless phone, of course, the base unit connects to the phone line and communicates with the remote handset via radio-frequency (RF) signals. In a Wi-Fi network, the base unit, called a wireless access point, plugs into a cable modem or DSL connection and communicates with Wi-Fi network adapters installed in computers throughout the house. The network adapters would typically be a PC Card in a laptop computer, a plug-in PCI card in a desktop machine, or an external adapter connected via a USB port.

A Real-World Wireless LAN

When I put together my LAN, I chose to use such a cordless-phone, or "infrastructure" configuration. I connected an Intel Wireless Gateway access point ($199, at the center in the illustration on page 101) to the cable modem in the family room and a hub to the access point's Ethernet port. Then I attached a desktop PC and a printer to the hub, and I was also able to hook up my son's computer by running a Cat 5 Ethernet cable to the adjoining room. (Yes, I could have connected it wirelessly, but the short cable run was a simple job, and if you don't need to go wireless, a wired connection is better because it's not subject to signal blockage or interference - and it's cheaper, too.)

Linksys also offers the WMP11 plug-in wireless PCI card ($119).
I then added an Intel AnyPoint PC Card adapter ($99) to my laptop and an AnyPoint USB adapter ($109) to my home-office PC, which is in a detached garage about 70 feet from the access point. While all of the wireless products I used are from Intel, that isn't necessary for compatibility. Any products bearing the Wi-Fi logo are certified to work together by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance.

The usable range of a wireless connection is typically 300 feet, which would be coverage overkill for my postage-stamp suburban lot. But that range varies with environmental conditions, as do the data rates obtainable within it. (The maximum data rate for Wi-Fi networking is 11 megabits per second, or Mbps.) The fewer walls between the access point and the PC that's trying to connect to the network, the better the signal will be. Wi-Fi LANs operate in an unlicensed portion of the 2.4-GHz band, which means that they're prone to interference from microwave ovens, some cordless phones, and other devices using the same frequencies. And the signals are hampered not only by walls but by the weather, too. I always had worse connections on rainy days, presumably because moisture in the air and wet leaves attenuated the signal. Though I'm sure the weak connections reduced my data rates significantly below the 11-Mbps maximum, my Internet connection wasn't noticeably hampered because the top speed I'm accustomed to from my cable modem is "only" 1 Mbps.

Most networks eventually grow, and mine was no exception. But that expansion wasn't without growing pains. I faced a challenge when I wanted to add a digital music server and a ReplayTV 4000 video recorder to my home theater. Both the server and ReplayTV box needed broadband access. However, neither could be hooked to a wireless adapter directly - they needed to be attached to a wired Ethernet network. Unfortunately, running wiring from the music server to the network hub was impractical, if not impossible.

I knew that I had to build a small network for the music server and ReplayTV box, and then bridge that network to my wireless one. After being stumped for a while about how to do that, I happened on a relatively inexpensive solution - a pair of Linksys WAP11 wireless access points ($170 each). What makes the WAP11 different from many other access points is that it can be configured to operate in a bridging mode so it can tie two separate wired networks together wirelessly. (They can't, however, serve as a bridge and an access point at the same time.) The pair worked like a charm. And now if I want to connect more wired devices to the network, I can do it from either location.

Is Wi-Fi for You?

Like those home-improvement shows on TV, I've glossed over the actual details of what it took to get my network up and running. The shows leave out things like the hours of grunt work required to get the grout off the surface of a new tile floor. I left out the configuration hassles, help-line calls, new driver downloads, and other joys of virtually any computer installation. In the end, though, it was definitely worth my efforts. Having access to the Internet, my compressed music files, and even networked peripherals like printers from anywhere around the house is something I don't want to give up anytime soon. It's great having an Internet connection right in my home theater so that my broadband-dependent ReplayTV box and music server can download program-guide and CD title/track information, respectively. And checking office e-mail on the weekend is definitely more palatable when I can do it relaxing out on the deck.