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A new generation of wireless computer networks, which work faster and farther than before, is about to arrive, reports JOHN HARRIS.

What I love about talkback radio is that it holds up a mirror to our society.

I particularly recall the announcer who proclaimed that one of her guests would unveil the secrets of “whiffy” on her show that day.

While the prospect of a personal hygiene segment was about as appealing as a cold bath, I pricked up my ears when she mentioned computers. After a few seconds, I realised she was talking about WiFi (wireless fidelity) networking, the use of wireless networks to connect computers.

It was an object lesson in how impenetrable the arcane jargon of technology is for ordinary folk.

So, with a new wave of wireless networking almost upon us, here’s a rundown of how this useful technology works.

Wireless networks are the IT wonder of this decade just as computer networks were in the 1990s. What started out 8-10 years ago as a complex technology now offers plug and play simplicity, as long as you pay attention to setting up proper security.

A wireless network requires two components. The first device, called a wireless access point, is a central hub that radiates a wireless network over a nearby area.

The other is a wireless card, which plug into your notebook’s PC Card port or a PCI slot in the back of your desktop computer, which allows the computer to communicate with your access point.

Various types of security can prevent other people illegally logging into– aka hacking –your network.

During the past decade, we have had two major waves of wireless local area networks (WLANs), based on global standards ratified by an organisation called the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). These protocols were

  • 802.11b (released 1999) for WLANs that ran as fast as 11 megabits per second (Mb/s)
  • 802.11g (2003) which delivered wireless networks that ran as fast a 54 Mb/s.

There is also an 802.11a protocol which never really took off in a big way. Although it was faster than the 802.11b protocol, it did not travel as far or penetrate walls as effectively.

Since 2004, the IEEE has worked on the next new standard, 802.11n, which is expected to be released formally by the middle of next year.

802.11n promises to significantly improve wireless network performance throughput over previous standards. Many experts expect it will deliver speeds as fast as 248 Mb/s, which delivers performance beyond the traditional 100Mb/s limit of wired Ethernet networks. It is also expected to cover three times the area of current wireless LANs.

A core innovation in the new standard is the addition of multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO), which uses multiple antennas for transmitting and receiving to improve the system performance.

While it’s been a long time between drinks for WiFi standards, the first round of 802.11n is now being served.

Manufacturers of Australia’s most popular routers, including Billion * (www.billion.com.au), D-Link (www.dlink.com.au) and Motorola (www.motorola.com), have already released products based on the unratified draft of the 802.11n standard.

The benefit of draft N products is that you can get a faster wireless network without waiting a year for the 802.11n standard to be finalised. The downside is that such products may not work perfectly with the final draft of the standard.

It is up to you to decide whether the year of faster network performance is worth the cost.

* Disclosure: John Harris works for Impress Media Australia, the PR agency that represents Billion’s Australian distributor PC Range.

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