March 04, 2011

FYI: Wireless Networking

Improvements in wireless networking technology are making it an affordable alternative to wired networking and, for some lawyers, can be less costly and more easy to install than a wired network.  Wireless technology can be confusing, however, because marketing hype confuses technologies that approximate local area network technology and that which used to be known as "cellular".  The focus of these resources is local area networks, although other technologies are included for comparison purposes.

The Basics

The essentials of a wireless network are relatively simple. A computer (desktop PC, laptop PC, handheld / personal digital assistant (PDA)) has a network card with an antenna. The computer transmits data from this antenna to an "access point", another antenna that is fixed, generally high up. This access point connects by wire to the network hub and transmits the data onto the wired network. The computer with the antenna can move anywhere in the broadcast range of the access point, inside or outside the physical building in which the access point has been installed.

Other Considerations

The reasons organizations refrain from using wireless are many. The most significant reason - the lack of standardized technology - is no longer applicable, since the 1999 802.11x standards created an environment where vendors could create compatible technology. Some other considerations:


Wireless LAN products, both access points and network cards with antennas, cost more than the wired products. Wireless becomes cost effective when associated costs - moving fixed network jacks, installing additional jacks for adequate coverage - are factored in. Thus, the long term cost of a wireless LAN may be lower than for a wired LAN.


Wireless technology must be secured in the same manner as wired. While the 802.11 standards incorporate "wired equivalent privacy" encryption (WEP), it merely brings a wireless network to the same level as an unencrypted wired network. Virtual private networks (VPNs), enhanced encryption, and other security measures should be taken to protect a wireless network.

Recent news about wireless technology has exacerbated the notion that wireless LANs cannot be made secure. This incorrect. While the standard has security flaws, network administrators are most likely already using security solutions that could be applied to their wireless as well as wired networks. Security problems arise when wireless networks are treated differently from wired networks, and the basic wireless LAN security features (requiring MAC address registration, activating WEP, etc.) are not invoked. Additionally, if you are installing a wireless network, you should be aware of the coverage area of your wireless LAN, and that some of that coverage area may be outside the area under your physical control.


If you require an access point from one vendor to work with a network card and antenna from another vendor, first make sure they operate using the same standard. If that standard is 802.11b, make sure they are "Wi-Fi" (Wireless Fidelity) certified. This certification assures some basic interoperability between products by different vendors. Be aware, however, that with the recent security concerns raised and improvements made by certain vendors, some network cards with enhanced security have effectively become proprietary and the enhanced security features only work with technology from the same vendor. Although the network cards and antennas may work with another vendor's access point, the cards and antenna may be transmitting with less encryption than you had intended.


Wireless is not as fast as wired. Period. If you need high speed networks, go with wired. If you primarily use the Internet, e-mail, online legal research, and other relatively low bandwidth activities, wireless networking will be sufficient. Currently, you can purchase 802.11b standards-compliant technology that has potential bandwidth of 11 Mbps. Even for file sharing and other higher bandwidth applications, this is sufficient bandwidth in a smaller office. Keep in mind that, unlike wired networking, a wireless access point that can handle 11 Mbps will share that bandwidth amongst simultaneous users. If three of your lawyers hit your 11 Mbps wireless access point at the same time, they will each have fewer than 4 Mbps access. Again, depending on the particular use and how long that use continues, wireless bandwidth can fluctuate in any given environment in a way wired access will not.


Wireless LAN Resources

Industry Associations

Standards Resources