Rory Cellan-Jones

N is for networking

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 30 Mar 09, 08:28 GMT

When did you first try to set up a wi-fi network? As far as I can remember, my first was back in 2003, and involved about a fortnight of grovelling on the floor under the computer, reading three sets of instructions seemingly written in Japanese, hours on the phone to helplines, and the odd bit of swearing and weeping.

The whole process has got a lot more "plug-and-play" since then - after all it's a mass market product now in millions of homes. But trying to set up a new network this week to send a fast internet connection around my home proved that wi-fi can still be pretty challenging. It's also clear that getting fast connections into homes is one thing - sending the signal wirelessly around them is another matter.

Rory Cellan-Jones setting up wi-fi

This was my first experience of using the router which is supposed to deliver far faster speeds - one on the 802.11n standard. Yes, I know - why should we as consumers need to know about this gobbledegook - and I'm sure I wasn't really aware that previous routers were 802.11b, g, q, a or z. But I've found that this time there's stuff you need to know.

So here's how it went. First I put the set-up disc in the computer which took me to a PDF file with some pretty simple set-up instructions. When it said "now switch off your computer" I did so - and realised that I no longer had the instructions. Duuuuuuuh, as my youngest son is prone to say. Turn on again, print out the PDF - not all 60 pages, just the relevant ones, and start again.

Having wired everything correctly, I was then directed to a website which would allow me to configure the router, by entering "admin" and "password". It took me instead to the router maker's homepage. I kept on re-entering the web address - and kept coming back to the same place, rather than the secret door into the router. Time to call on expert advice - my teenage son, who doubles as our director of IT when he can be called away from World of Warcraft duties.

After a quick search he found that entering the same string of numbers which we'd used to access other routers allowed us to open this one too. Then it was easy - upgrade to the latest firmware, choose our wireless security option - WEP -and, hey presto, we were up and running.

The only trouble was that over the next 24 hours it became clear that the network was limping rather than running. For one thing my son's computer kept dropping off it. For another, it was only delivering speeds of as low as 5Mbps - on our new fast cable connection of "up to 50Mbps" which was achieving 48Mbps on a wired computer.

I mentioned this to a colleague at work who is far more learned than me about networking. "802.11n isn't actually an agreed standard yet," he opined wisely. "what's more in a busy street like yours you'll get all sorts of other networks crowding out your signal."

I also sought out, as I'm prone to do these days, some advice from the Twitter community. People were very helpful - but not all that clear. Here's one example: "If you have huge packetloss (try sudo ping -c1000 -f in Terminal) try reinstalling latest combo update on all Macs."

Hmmm - maybe Wikipedia could help? Well the entry on the 802.11 standard has this message right at the top:"This article may be confusing or unclear to readers". Which isn't exactly encouraging.

So then I got in touch with a real expert - a man who works for one of the big router firms. He immediately diagnosed my problem - I'd put the wrong kind of security on. It turns out that WEP just doesn't work with "n" routers - or rather it does but it throttles them back to "g" speeds. It only works at full speed if you have no encryption or use one of the WPA options.

So why on earth does the router company allow you to choose WEP? He explained that they'd originally shipped the shiny new routers without it but there had been a consumer backlash. My router man also confirmed that the 802.11n standard hasn't been finalised yet, so there's the possibility that some bits of kit won't work with others, even if theoretically they are both using 802.11n.

I went home that evening and followed my expert's instructions, and immediately achieved some pretty impressive speeds - though so far we haven't got above 30Mbps on the wireless network.

My expert had said you could get wireless of up to 47Mbps on a 50Mbps line - but warned that all sorts of factors could bring that down. Other people's networks, the microwave and cordless phone in our house, the design of the computers we use, mobiles using bluetooth in the home could all cut those speeds.

But most members of the household seem pretty happy with what we've achieved. Except for my younger son. He has our oldest computer - handed down the family. It's seven years old - and doesn't talk WPA which means he can't enter the password to join the network. We''ll need to find a way sort him out.

All in all, setting up a new network has been an awful lot less of a headache than it was back in 2003. But there's still a language to be learned, from 802.11n to WPA2PSK with AES encryption. And if you don't speak fluent wireless, you may need to find a decent interpreter.


  • Comment number 1.

    Bring back Cat5 I say - - who needs all this wireless stuff. A few ducts, a few drill holes and you're set :-0

  • Comment number 2.

    Why bother with drilling holes when you can use a set of homeplug adapters? ;-)

    These adapters plug into your mains, you plug your network cable into the other side of it, and they use your existing mains wiring to send the signal around your house. Like wireless, it comes in many different (and potentially incompatible) speeds, but the current fastest is homeplug AV, which runs up to around 200 megabits/second.

  • Comment number 3.

    For providing networking to fixed locations like the kid's bedrooms, consider powerline technology. It effectively runs ethernet over your existing electrical wiring.

  • Comment number 4.

    Your first mistake was to actually read the manual!

    Connect the hand-me-down computer to your router using a pair of power line network adaptors ('home plugs') if the pesky machine's too far away to run a cable. Cost about 40-50 quid if you hunt out the bargains.

    Don't leave another wifi router on the net just to satisfy the requirement for WEP because the WEP encryption scheme is well and truly cracked and hackers will soon be scrutinzing your BBC expenses for claims for 'adult' films.

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm still on Cat5 and see no reason to change, but then i'm into computing.

    Wifi is definitely for the casual users.

  • Comment number 6.

    Using WEP!??????

    In this day and age no one should be using this - it is proven to be insecure by many people.

    Use WPA2 if at all possible - there may be limitations on your existing kit - failing that WPA.

  • Comment number 7.

    All your son needs is a newer wireless adaptor which will support the "n" standard. (I say standard, but we all know it's far from yet...)

    When you were stuggling to get to the router's setup pages, you should have gone to the command prompt and typed "ipconfig /all" then it would have told you the IP address of the router and you could have gone from there.

    Just for future reference ;-)

  • Comment number 8.

    Oh yeah, and WEP should only be used as a very, very, very last resort. If using WEP, you should always turn off SSID broadcast really, due to it being so insecure. And turn on MAC address filtering too, to be safe.

    I agree though, that the newer routers should still support WEP as it's better (but only just) than having no encryption at all. But maybe they should be labelled as "LESS SECURE" or maybe even have to be enabled somewhere deep in and "Advanced -> Security -> Legacy" menu, to discourage people from using it.

  • Comment number 9.

    Im in the same situation as your son, i have an old wi-fi card that doesnt talk WPA and even after firmware updates it still doesnt talk WPA, what are we to do except buy new wi-fi cards then in another 5 years have to upgrade again as a new security format arrives. Maybe routers should have dual security to allow backward compatability, afterall your neighbours are unlikely to want to hack you internet. also this just adds to the pile of defunct electronics which just gets bigger and bigger each year, companies need to start taking responsibility for not producing so many!

  • Comment number 10.

    I've had wireless since 2001 cost a princely sum for an SMC router and wireless card but a pleasure to use. Never been without it since

    1. Never use WEP for anything. It's cracked and broken.

    2. As has been said don't read the instructions first. They are usually translations of translations and apply to a firmware from 3 years prior

    3. Homeplugs are great, really great, have a couple at home for media streaming, perfectly behaved and near LAN speeds without irritating signal loss.

    4. If you want real pain get two Windows 98 SE PCs and try and connect them together with a twisted pair ethernet cable, I gave up after 6 weeks.

  • Comment number 11.

    Well done Rory, even us pros sometimes find it's more difficult than we expect to get a wireless setup working. I'm with the guys that suggest using homeplug (hetwork over your mains wiring) - I have both wireless and homeplug in my network. But speed depends on the quality of your mains wiring, so it isn't a cure-all.

    I'd encourage you to think about security a bit further - did you leave your router set to allow log in using the default password? That means it's the same password as a million others, and well known to anyone who'd be interested in breaking into your network.

  • Comment number 12.

    there's "need to know" and need to know. Personally I switch of wireless the moment I install anything that comes with it. Laptops with switches are especially good, as the drivers for many are vulnerable to buffer overflow attacks, let alone simple interception hacks.

    As for when? Before the tech crunch at work, we used to use IPAQ's with wireless cards as streaming music players :)

    At home, sometime around 2004 I think, as an experiment, but the connection speed was so crap we went back to using cables after a day. The speed is jo so much better, we now have cat6 gigabit in the house.

  • Comment number 13.

    I'd certainly back the people recommending HomePlug/Powerline networking. I initially bought a pair of adapters after a frustrating series of efforts trying to get a slingbox that was hooked up to our Sky+ box in the living room running at any kind of reasonable speed to the computers in the front bedroom. With the Powerline adapters it was quite literally a plug in and play solution, and way faster than I could achieve with wireless.

  • Comment number 14.

    There's probably a pretty simple fix to your son's problem, usually it's the case that the wifi card will work with WPA and not WPA2, and that sometimes the "automatic" selection of WPA just.. doesn't happen :p.

    Open up network connections in the control panel, right click on the wireless adapter and click on properties. Then choose the "wireless networks" tab, choose your wifi access point from the list, then click "properties" just below that. Once you've opened this window there should be a set of drop-down-lists, one of which should say "WPA2-PSK" in it. Click it and select "WPA-PSK", save the settings and reboot. Touch wood you've fixed your problem!

  • Comment number 15.

    #5 said, "Wifi is definitely for casual users."

    What you are implying here is that serious users would not use wifi, which is totally incorrect. If I am connecting a server farm together then cables are a must.

    However wifi is a very sensible facility for lots of situations that are not casual. For example I was at a computer conference and everyone connected over wifi. The feed to the conference room was even over wifi.

  • Comment number 16.

    What I meant to imply is that most serious users who want to do more than browse web pages on their home network probably would not be using wifi to do it.

  • Comment number 17.

    Everyone is obessed with WiFi now. I know people who have their router on their desk next to their PC yet they have gone out and bought a netgear wireless pci card.

    The world has gone mad.

  • Comment number 18.

    Everyone going on about stringing Cat-5 around the house clearly doesn't have a wife or girlfriend - or pets. They'd all put their foot or paws down on your plans.

  • Comment number 19.

    I'm not the most technical person in the world, but I got both my wifes & my laptop, my old desktop, and my PS3 & PSP online & secured in a couple of clicks.

    I'm not sure how there can be problems.

    The price of stuff is falling all the time, so I don't understand why some people in the comments are making do with something that is so obviously out of date, when you can just stick it on eBay, let someone else have the problem, and put the money towards a new shiny thing.

  • Comment number 20.

    When G first came out there was problems with some devices drivers, so even when poeple buy kit that claims '802.11n' you can find that it may not work very well. The old rule was to match the manufacturer of both wireless card and router, as there was more chance they had tested it.

    One problem no one has mentioned is that in the cities 802.11b/g i.e. 2.4GHz wireless is becoming every more crowded, and problems can be down to number of networks running on the same channel.

    Ethernet cabling is still the king, but difficult to hide. Some new builds will install Ethernet to every room but at a fairly high price.

  • Comment number 21.

    Some wireless network interfaces also seem to dislike certain radio frequencies. I discovered the problem whilst experimenting with different channels to optimise throughput on a busy student house network.

    Upon switching to certain wireless channels, I found that round-trip packet loss jumped to around 99% between my laptop and the wireless access point irrespective of the computer's physical proximity or orientation relative to the access point. Most of the systems on the network were unaffected, with the most notable exception being a friend whose laptop is virtually identical to mine.

    I also had trouble convincing my laptop to connect to the wireless network at my girlfriend's house, which was operating on the same channel as the one I'd had trouble with. Finally I convinced her to allow me to change the channel at their house. Nobody noticed the change, except for one housemate, who had abandoned WiFi in favour of Cat5, reporting significantly improved connectivity following the change; and his machine was a desktop (I'm not sure what WiFi hardware it was using).

    I agree that for computer systems that never move, cables are the way to go. Cabled networks are much faster and more reliable than wireless ones, their susceptibility to interference is negligible in comparison and they are almost completely secure. I've never been much of a fan of cable-chewing type pets.

  • Comment number 22.

    If you get anything like 54mbps out of wireless (g) then the radios are adjacent on the desktop so what was the point.

    Wireless is a TOY unless it is being used to solve a problem that could not be solved otherwise. In specific, plans to "wire up" a region wirelessly are fairly doomed to fail unless you use licensed WiMax or similar, and all those are just more ways to make money off you while you remain UNDERSERVED. If you can run a wire from room to room, that is the DEFINITIVE way to connect those rooms; it will not fail until you cut the cord. Wifi is pretty much moment-to-moment. Ethernet rules, wifi drools. And fiber beats them all.

    Would you like to have a ONE GIGABIT FIBER CONNECTION TO YOUR HOUSE AND OFFICE? Well, of course you would, see THAT is what the PUBLIC SHOULD DEMAND - Fiber To The House (and office.) Such a connection will serve 99.2% of users extremely well, leaving "wifi" to pick up the leftover bits.

    If you are concerned for your data then it should never even LEAVE your PC without being encrypted. They gave you WEP which was broken even before the "second run" of product manufacture; why trust anyone else's encryption when you can encrpyt for yourself? (SSH, PGP/GPG.)

  • Comment number 23.

    I'd support many other posters here - Cat5 is gold standard but a bit of a pain to install after the property is built (eminently do-able but not can be difficult to neatly).

    The powerline technologies are definitely worth considering and I'd highly recommend it for your son, Rory. I've used a variety of Solwise adapaters with no issues whatsoever and found them incredibly easy to use.

    I still find wireless useful, particularly for laptops/netbooks, etc. but completely agree re. using WPA2 or WPA.


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