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  Wireless networking, no strings attached 
  May 14, 2001, 08:00am EDT 
By: Sander Sassen

It has always been Man's nature to be mobile. Advances over the last century have enabled us to reach virtually any destination in record time, and everything in our homes to stoves to computers have been miniaturized in an effort to take whatever we want, wherever we want it. Perhaps one of the crowning achievements of the last decade was the advent of cellular communications, allowing us to communicate with our friends, family or colleagues from anywhere on the globe. The science fiction of the past has become today's reality. So it should come as no surprise that Networking has now become portable. While Wireless Networking, as it is called, is nothing new, standardization and improved performance may just allow this technology to replace traditional wired LANs.

Because of the drawbacks associated with Infrared and Microwave technologies, Radio Frequency Wireless Networking has become the choice for LAN environments. Standardized by the IEEE, RF Wireless transmits Spread Spectrum radio waves in the unlicensed 2.4Ghz band. The Spread Spectrum method 'spreads' the data across a much wider bandwidth than would normally be necessary to carry the signal. This 'spreading' reduces the effect of interference generated by narrow band transmissions, and keeps the signal secure, as the receiving station must know the transmitter's spreading code in order to reassemble the data.

Simply adding Wireless Adapters to notebook or desktop computers, can create small peer-to-peer Wireless LANs (WLANs). Larger WLANs work in a method that is remarkably similar to using a cellular phone. A centralized transmitter/receiver known as an Access Point communicates data to and from wireless network adapters housed in desktops and notebooks within a range of 100-500 feet, depending on the type of antenna being used. Multiple Access Points can be used to extend the receiving perimeter. These Access Points create 'cells', allowing a wireless user to 'roam' from one cell to the next, while maintaining the connection to the LAN.

RF Wireless Networking conveys a number of benefits over traditional wired LANs. Setting up a LAN or adding new workstations can be done quickly, without the usual time and money involved in running the necessary cabling. Since RF Wireless Networking can penetrate walls, ceilings and other solid objects, workstations can be placed in areas where cabling is difficult or even impossible to implement. When departmental moves are required, no additional work is needed. And of course, there is the mobility factor. Warehousing, hospital, retail, insurance and even academic markets are benefiting greatly from this technology, allowing inventory clerks, nurses and students to move from place to place without losing the LAN connection. Imagine a notebook becoming the standard issue for students, who can log on and stay connected to the school network as they roam from class to class.

However, the high bandwidth and large deployment of wired networks ensure that WLANs will most likely be an enhancement for the time being, and not a replacement, to wired LANs. Even so, one thing is certain: like cellular technology, Wireless Networking will give us the mobility and capability to revolutionize the way we work, communicate and interact with our friends, family and colleagues.

Sander Sassen.

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