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AddThis Social Bookmark Button Affordable Wireless LAN Using Airport

by Derrick Story

Wireless communications via cel phones and PDAs are generating lots of interest among technophiles, and rightly so -- they're terrific. But diminutive screen dimensions and low-octane processing power limit the capacity of these devices to accomplish many of our everyday tasks. For the time being, most of us still need notebooks and desktop computers to get the work done.

Thanks to technology developed by Lucent and other companies, however, our draft horse computers no longer need to be harnessed to the closest RJ-45 wall outlet. We can roam freely throughout the spacious interiors of our homes and offices happily connected to the Internet or to our nearby co-workers.

Am I talking about some sort of fumbly, bumbly, cumbersome technology that takes more time to implement than time saved using it? Absolutely not. Are we looking at leveraging our credit cards to replace aging wired networks with wireless freedom? No way.

Owners of current Macintosh computers can set up a wireless network right now for less than $200 US and one hour's worth of set-up time. I know because I just did it, and I'm never going back to running cable through my walls, under my carpet, and over my doorways. The wireless office is here right now.

Components of a Wireless Mac Office

Apple's branding of the wireless network is called "Airport." If you have one of the new "slot loading" iMacs (selling for as little as $995 USD), iBooks ($1,599 USD), or PowerBook 2000s (beginning at $2,499 USD), your computer has a built-in antenna, Airport card slot, and compatible system software for wireless communication.

Airport cards sell for $99 USD each and can be installed in about 15 minutes. Don't worry about making an appointment with your local hardware repair technician; anyone who can read a few paragraphs of instructions and can keep from shuffling their feet on the carpet can install these cards.

If you plan on creating a "roaming" network in a large facility, or want to have many users on your LAN, you should consider one or more Airport Base Stations selling for $300 USD each. However, if you have an iMac already connected to the Internet, and want to wander about the office with a couple of laptops, then you can bypass the hardware Base Station (often referred to as the "spaceship") and designate your iMac to be a "software" Base Station.

Why Bother With a Hardware Spaceship at All?

The most compelling reason to purchase the $300 spaceships is if you have a large facility and want to enable active roaming throughout the building. Generally speaking, the effective range of communication is limited to 150 feet (45 meters) per hub. In most cases that's enough. But in a more spacious setting, such as a school, that effective range can be extended by strategically placing spaceships throughout the facility and configuring them for active roaming.

Essentially, active roaming works when you give all of the spaceships the same name and connect them to the same subnet on your Ethernet network. Also remember to use just one password for all of the hubs. Once configured, client machines can wander from zone to zone maintaining communications with the strongest signal in that particular area. For these applications, a dedicated, compact, $300 spaceship makes more sense than a larger, more expensive $1,000 iMac.

Using a Software Base Station Instead

But why spend the $300 bucks if you don't need to? Most home offices can simply designate an Internet-connected iMac or PowerBook to act as a Base Station. Remember to set the "Energy Saver" settings to "never sleep" on Macs serving as Base Stations.

You can continue to use your Internet-connected Mac normally as it transmits to other computers across the wireless LAN. I've notice little, if any, degradation of performance during transmission.

Once you've configured your software Base Station, any computer on the network requiring an Internet connection will prompt the Base Station to establish a connection via the dial-up, DSL, or cable modem. The Base Station's Internet connection is then made available to the other clients via DHCP. Current software Base Stations don't support static IP addresses for client Macs.

This scenario can be particularly appealing to home networks where family members fight over a single Internet connection. By creating the Airport wireless LAN, each client can access the Web via his or her computer -- even while others are doing so. That will certainly make the kids happy.

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