It’s the question that every would-be do-it-yourselfer asks Fred Givhan: Can I install a wireless computer network in my home, or do I need professional help?
“And the answer I always give them is a qualified yes,” says Givhan, who owns DirectConnect Computer Services, a neighborhood company that specializes in installing home and small business wireless networks.
“Average computer users probably can’t do it. But someone who is handy with computers and is determined can do it. It depends on the expertise of the user.”
That’s because the actual work involved, save for deciphering the terminology, isn’t that complicated. There are only a handful of pieces of hardware to attach, and they usually clip on or slide in easily. A wireless network allows every computer in a home, whether PC or Mac, to use the same high-speed Internet connection without running cables between each machine. Instead, hardware (a wireless access point) is connected to the high-speed modem. Then, more hardware (a wireless client) is attached to each computer, either through a USB port or a card slot.
The hardware on the modem sends a radio signal to the hardware on each computer, allowing the computer to use the modem. This setup also allows computers to share printers and files, so that a laptop can use a printer that is connected to a desktop that is also part of the network.
The catch comes in configuring the hardware, which can take 10 minutes or 10 hours. With computers, say the experts, there is almost no way of knowing ahead of time.
“Most people who try it aren’t going to have any problems,” says Will Smith, technical editor for Maximum PC magazine. “I’d say 90 percent would be able to do it in an hour. But having said that, the other 10 percent are probably going to wish they had never tried to do it.”
Making the connection
Wireless kits are available at most computer stores, costing $300 to $500. That price includes the access point and additional hardware for two or three computers. Hiring someone to set up a network usually costs a couple of hundred dollars more, depending on labor and the quality of the hardware they use.
If you want to try it yourself, keep the following points in mind:
• Most over-the-counter equipment is interchangeable, as long as it uses the same standard. That, for home networks, is something called 802.11b, or Wi-Fi. It’s reasonably fast and fairly straightforward to use.
• Security, security, security. The biggest drawback to 802.11b hardware is that all of it uses the same radio signal, which means that if you don’t encrypt your system, your neighbor — or a hacker — can read your files simply by turning on his or her computer, as long as it’s part of a wireless network. Encryption, though, is as easy as giving your system a name (part of the SSID protocol) and changing the default password that comes with the hardware. Amazingly, say the experts, most home users rarely change the password.
• Range. If you live in an apartment, this won’t be a problem. But if you live in a 3,500-square-foot house, it’s a serious consideration. Basic home networks cover a 300-foot radius, less if there are lots of walls and even less if the walls are thick. So an access point attached to a cable modem in the family room in one corner of the house might not reach the desktop client on the second floor on the other side of the house. Then, you need to consider moving the modem (or running a cable) to a more central location or setting up repeater stations.
• Interference. Since home networks use radio signals, anything that sends on the same frequency can interrupt the signal. That includes portable phones and microwave ovens (especially if they’re boiling water).
• ISP difficulties. This can often present a major problem, since each Internet service provider has different standards. Your network might be able to talk to itself, but have trouble accessing the Internet. Smith suggests contacting your ISP before installing a network to see what, if anything, might present a problem.