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The different flavours of Wireless

A frustrating part of working in IT is the amount of jargon we use. To make it worse, we often start using the same terms for different technology which only confuses people more.

The term “wireless” is a good example. This simple word manages to confuse not only consumers but many computer techs and salespeople. To clarify what’s what, here are the basic differences;

Wireless Internet

Wireless Internet is a way of connecting to the Internet by using the mobile phone network or other wire free technologies. These work over large areas and are designed so suburbs or districts can have Internet access without needing a telephone or cable TV connection.

There’s a whole range of wireless Internet providers, ranging from local businesses covering regional towns to the big telcos like Bigpond, Optus and Vodafone .

Like everything related to mobile phones the plans are complex and can be difficult to follow. You need to look very closely at your charges before connecting to the net through your mobile.

Other wireless Internet providers such as iBurst and Unwired have plans more like the standard Internet plans at a similar price. We have more on this issue on our choosing an ISP page.

The common factor with wireless Internet services is they require a either a modem or a mobile phone to plug into your computer. The built in wireless functions standard in most laptops won’t connect to these systems.

It should be kept in mind that wireless Internet has similar limitations to the mobile phone network. Some areas get rotten reception and different carriers perform better than others in certain locations. We recommend you investigate the alternatives before entering into a wireless Internet contract.

All the wireless Internet systems have built in security that makes it almost impossible to eavesdrop. This is where the main confusion is between the two types of wireless arises. Wireless networking has well deserved reputation for not being secure.

Wireless Networks

Networking your home or office wirelessly can be an effective way of sharing files, printers and Internet connections in your home or office. The security problems are due to many systems not having basic security enabled.

To link to a wireless network, a computer uses a wireless Network Interface Card. Most laptops come with these included. If the network has security enabled, as we recommend, then you’ll need to type in the security code (known as WEP or WPA passkey) before you'll be allowed on the network.

You’ll find wireless networks in coffee shops, airport lounges and hotels as well as homes and offices. Many of these networks are set up for you to connect to the Internet, often at a price. Wireless networks only work in a small area around where the local network is installed.

Wireless connections

Just to confuse matters, there's are other wireless technologies available. The most common for computer users is RF (Radio Frequency) equipment that communicate through a small radio transmitter. These are the most popular type of wireless mice and keyboards.

The older infra red system has largely vanished. You might still find the odd PDA, mobile phone or laptop that uses it but it's rare to find them in shops.

The replacement for Infrared is Bluetooth. This is now a very common way for connecting with mobile phones, keyboards, mice, speakers, headphones and printers. It should be noted that printers marked as "wireless" usually mean they have built in wireless networking, not Bluetooth or the other wireless connections.

The wire free computer is still a long way off, even if you use a laptop connected to a wireless network or with a wireless Internet connection, you'll still have to plug the thing into the power sometimes.

In the meantime, we'll have to struggle with a myriad of different wireless technologies. In general, we think it's best to accept the fact a few wires behind your computer are inevitable rather than chasing the impossible dream.



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©Technology Publishing Australia, 2008