A wireless network provides flexibility and mobility—and you can set one up inexpensively

I work at home, and when I decided to set up a home network, I carefully considered all the alternatives. I would have liked to use standard Category 5 (Cat 5) unshielded, twisted-pair Ethernet wiring, but rewiring an old house wasn't practical. I also considered phone and power line networks, but in the end, the best choice was a wireless network.

Initially, I looked at HomeRF, a 1.6Mbps wireless standard that Intel and wireless vendors such as Proxim supported. When I first looked at HomeRF, it had a major price advantage over Wi-Fi (802.11b wireless) solutions, which run at speeds of up to 11Mbps (the actual speed depends on connection conditions). But about a year ago, the difference evaporated as 802.11b prices dropped and HomeRF prices stayed the same.

If you want a wireless network, the way to go is Wi-Fi, the dominant wireless local networking standard. You can find adapters for less than $90, and you can buy access points for slightly more than $200. Intel's AnyPoint HomeRF adapters sell for $10 to $20 less, but given the considerably slower transmission speed, why would anyone buy one?

A wireless network costs considerably more than a 100Mbps Ethernet network, so if you don't mind stringing wire through your walls, you can save a lot of money. For example, you can buy a D-Link Systems 10/100 five-port hub for $42.95 and an SMC Networks 10/100 PCI NIC for $11.68. Your total cost for a four-user network would be $89.67—about the price of one wireless card. But if you go wireless, you can also take your notebook into the living room and work while you watch the ball game, or you can take it out on the deck or into the kitchen. And if you rent a home, the ability to move your network easily makes a wireless network appealing.

Using Windows XP to set up a Wi-Fi wireless network is mindlessly simple—you just plug in the hardware, and it finds the network. With other versions of Windows, you have to run a utility that configures the wireless access point. Typically, this process is reasonably straightforward. But, less expensive hardware on the market—from D-Link and Linksys, for example—uses chipsets and hardware from Intersil, and the configuration utility works on only Windows 9x. My network has only Windows 2000 systems, so I had to configure a Win98 system to set up my network. Setup was a pain, but after I finished it, configuration problems were a thing of the past.

My wireless experience hasn't been perfect, though. I've encountered a strange dead zone in my house at one end of the kitchen. I can find no obvious cause (e.g., lead shields, cones of silence). I've tested three different wireless networks in my house, and all three have had the same problem. The Wi-Fi standard transmits in the same 2.4GHz band as many wireless phones, including one that I own. Unlike the findings many reports present, I haven't seen any clear conflicts between the different 2.4GHz devices I've used, but my phone is weak in the same dead spot. Does this fact imply that there's nothing wrong with the products I'm using, or does it suggest that they all have a problem?

You also might have read about wireless systems and related security problems. Yes, a sophisticated neighbor could hook into your wireless network, but such attacks aren't easy to mount, and the connection would be only at the lowest protocol levels of the network.

The developers of the Wi-Fi standard did a poor job creating security facilities, and it's not that difficult for a competent cracker to intrude into your network, especially if you use an insecure network OS such as Win98. In my home network, I use only Win2K systems and I authenticate logons. That solution might not work for all home networks, but my point is that other security solutions exist beyond the Wi-Fi layer. For example, I also run antivirus software and a firewall, and so should you.

The best solutions to these security problems, such as running a VPN, are too cumbersome for a home network. Some newer wireless products, such as the D-Link DI-714, use 128-bit encryption for wireless security, which addresses some of the problems. But if you're very concerned about crackers accessing your home network, Wi-Fi might not be secure enough for you.

As I researched home networking solutions, I heard good things about phone line networking, which is based on a standard called HomePNA (for more information about HomePNA, go to http://homepna.org). HomePNA products operate at a respectable 10Mbps, and you can set up a home network quickly and inexpensively. You can tie two point-to-point systems together for less than $200.

But, I'm a computing snob, and the more I thought about wireless networking, the more appealing it became. I don't have phone lines everywhere that I might want to put a computer—especially a notebook—and it seemed silly to run new lines for the network. Why should I be tied to my phone connections if I don't need to be?

Another emerging alternative home networking technology is power line networking. Power line networking products that operate at low speeds (slower than 1Mbps) have been around for years, but a new generation of products, rated at 14Mbps and based on standards of the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, are scheduled to ship this year. (For more information about this new standard, go to http://www.homeplug.org.) The benefit of using power lines rather than phone lines for networking is that you're likely to have more power outlets than phone lines available in your house. But the new power line products are unproven, and for convenience, they still can't beat a wireless network.

The benefits of my wireless network have outweighed any of the problems, real or theoretical. I think that home networks will be cutting edge for a long time because they're relatively difficult to work with, but the gee-whiz factor in home networking justifies a lot of hard work in configuring it.