Tech Notes
Trends in Technology

By J. Anthony Vittal


Pocket-Sized Travel Routers

If you have become a wireless road warrior, you may be frustrated at the lack of WiFi connections in otherwise broadband-networked hotel rooms and attorney conference rooms. What good is your high-powered featherweight WiFi-capable notebook if you have to be tied to the desk in your hotel room or tethered to the RJ-45 plug in the conference room, instead of sitting wherever you want?

The answer is simple: avail yourself of one of the new crop of pocket-sized travel routers, which are about the size of a pack of cigarettes or smaller. Plug it into the wired broadband connection in the room, hook up the power connection, and you have an instant WiFi access point with a range of about 30 to 100 feet. Features vary widely, and you get what you pay for, so consider what you want the device to do before buying.

The most versatile of these convenience items is Apple’s 802.11g AirPort Express. While Apple is not marketing it as a travel router, it is compact and thoughtfully designed to conveniently fit that market niche. Its integrated power supply allows you eliminate the “brick” and reduce travel bulk. It also has an integrated USB print server, so you can print directly to your travel printer if you are so inclined. As an added benefit, if you are running an AirPort wireless network at home or at the office, the AirPort Express also connects wirelessly to an AirPort Extreme Base Station, enabling you to use the AirPort Express as a repeater to extend the range of your AirPort network.

If you have no need for the print server or repeater functions of the AirPort Express, but still want 802.11g (nominally 54 Mbps) connectivity, consider the Netgear WGR101, the 3Com travel router, or the Pocket Router from D-Link Systems. Each of these devices has an external power adapter and a carrying case, so they are somewhat bulkier than the AirPort Express. The tradeoffs in bulk and features, however, roughly halve the price. The D-Link is particularly convenient, since it is barely larger than a credit card (although somewhat thicker to accommodate the RJ-45 jack on one end.

 If you don’t need the speed of an 802.11g access point and are willing to settle for the slower 802.11b protocol (nominally 11 Mbps), you can shave even more off the cost. Because the broadband networks in most hotels don’t offer more than about 1 Mbps of bandwidth in the real world, some suggest the additional bandwidth of an 802.11g wireless travel router is wasted. On the other hand, 802.11g devices typically offer better security. For an 802.11b device, consider the Asus WL-330 access point, which is available for under $50.

As convenient as these devices may be, they are not without issues. Setting up the wireless security features (encryption) may be more difficult than the instructions suggest, unless you are conversant with these setup tasks. To assure these devices work properly, complete the installation, security setup, and debugging process before you leave home. Then you can be assured of a pleasant WiFi experience when you use them on the road.

Whatever you do, never operate these devices without enabling all of the security functions. Even then, and especially when connecting to an insecure access point, be sure to run a separate software firewall on your notebook when you are connected wirelessly to avoid the adverse consequences of spoofing and other wireless malice. Because Windows XP built-in firewall only operates against inbound traffic, even if enabled it will not prevent unwanted outbound communication by malware on your computer. For a “belt and suspenders” solution, consider adding one of the new intrusion detection applications, which will be the subject of a future column.

All of this shows that we can expect a future of ever-simpler wireless computing. Travel safe, and be sure to take some time for yourself when on the road.

J. Anthony Vittal ( tony.vittal@abanet.org) is the General Counsel of Credit.Com, Inc., and Identity Theft 911, LLC, both based in San Francisco, California. A former member of the ABA Standing Committee on Technology and Information Systems and a member of various technology-oriented committees of ABA Sections, he speaks and writes frequently on legal technology topics.

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