November 01, 2016

Dealing with WiFi

Jeffrey M. Allen

Wireless networking has become more and more common in homes and offices as it allows connections for multiple devices without the need to run cabling throughout the building for connectivity. Setting up and operating a WiFi network entails less effort than ever before, but it does require that you give some thought to ethical considerations in your professional life and practical and safety considerations in your professional and personal lives. The process of setting up a network for business or personal use is pretty much the same, but you may want to impose some stronger controls when setting up a wireless network for your business. In this article I will review the process with you, so that you can feel comfortable setting up the network.

I have had some people ask whether they really have to have a wireless network in their home or office or whether they can get by with a wired connection. The answer is relatively simple: of course, you do not have to have a wireless network at home or at work. If all you need is basic network functionality, you likely can still get by with a hardwired network. In fact, a hardwired network has some advantages over a wireless network. Similarly, you really do not have to have a television set; a radio will still work and provide you with basic entertainment, music, news, and sports. On the other hand, television has some advantages too, such as broader programming, visual images, and more. A WiFi network will let you connect smartphones, tablets, Kindles, Nooks, and other devices to the network and the Internet, while a hardwired network will not. Additionally, if you use a laptop computer, a WiFi network gives you the ability to use it anywhere in the office or the house, instead of just in the immediate vicinity of a connection port for the hardwired system.

It All Starts with the Provider

Internet access speed has dramatically increased over the last decade. Ten years ago, residential broadband connections generally capped between 1.5 Mbps to 3 Mbps. Today they commonly reach or even exceed 50 Mbps. Business services generally have higher speeds available. What you do on the network and how many users will share it bear on the speed you should try to get from your provider. More users require more bandwidth. Email and web surfing do not require exceptionally high speed. Gaming and streaming video require considerably more. Streaming high definition video requires even more speed. By way of example (or as a guideline), here are the Netflix download speed recommendations for playing movies and TV shows through Netflix.

  • 0.5 Megabits per second—Required broadband connection speed
  • 1.5 Megabits per second—Recommended broadband connection speed
  • 3.0 Megabits per second—Recommended for SD quality
  • 5.0 Megabits per second—Recommended for HD quality
  • 25.0 Megabits per second—Recommended for Ultra HD quality

You Need the Right Stuff

You need to match your equipment to your connection speed. If you have older equipment that will not accommodate the speed of your connection, you will not get the speed you pay the provider to provide. Conversely, if you have high-speed equipment but a slow connection, you will not get the advantage the equipment can offer. You always get the lesser speed. No matter the speed of your connection, you have to have the right equipment to use it properly. You need a decent wireless router to convert the signal to wireless and broadcast it throughout your location. The modem you use to connect your computer to the Internet may have built-in wireless router capability. If so, check out its technology, as you may want to bypass it and use a separate device. Wireless has been around for a while, and we have gone through several technologies. We call the current technology “Wireless N.” You will want to get a device with Wireless N. You can find wireless routers from many manufacturers. Reviewing routers exceeds the scope of this article; but you can get useful information as to router choices by comparing the routers listed in these articles:

If you have older equipment, although you probably will still be able to connect to the network and to the Internet, it could slow down the speed at which it operates. Upgrade the equipment to the N standard, or connect it only when you need to use it. In the best of all worlds, your equipment will all support WPA2 (that is a security issue) and use Wireless N technology (a speed issue primarily).

You should also take note that that some equipment operates at 2.4 gigahertz (GHz), while other equipment at 5.0 GHz. Still other equipment works on both bands. The choice of which band you operate on bears on the properties the band has. Networks on 2.4 GHz generally have a longer range, and those on 5 GHz generally run faster (and also are less crowded). If you have a device that runs both, you can often solve a connection problem by shifting from one to the other. I like that idea best and have a router that does both at my house. It also has the capability of running two networks at the same time, so I always have a 5 GHz and a 2.4 GHz. I have found that in different parts of the house and, interestingly at different times of the day, one will work better than the other. If one seems to have some problems, I can usually get better service by shifting to the other.

Pay Attention to Where You Put Your Equipment

Location of your wireless hotspot represents a critical factor to the quality of the connections you get in other parts of the building. If you set your wireless equipment up in the basement, you likely will not get good connectivity on the second floor of the house. You do not need line of sight to connect, but the fewer walls, doors, floors, ceilings, and large pieces of furniture between the wireless router and the device you want to connect to it, the better the connection you will get. Generally, higher is usually better in terms of broadcast range. If you have a two story building that you want to service, setting the router up on the second floor will probably get you better service throughout the house than setting it up on the first floor. If you have one room with connection issues, a repeater device to rebroadcast the signal may provide a better connection in that location.

Proper Security Satisfies Your Professional Ethical Obligations

You need to consider security at the time you set up the network. The network will have an SSID (Service Set Identifier). The SSID is the network’s name. You can set up a network without a password; but if you do, that leaves it unprotected and open for anyone to access, even without your permission. You do not want to do that. Most networks come with either WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) or WPA (Wireless Protected Access) or both. WPA, the newer of the two, provides stronger protection. WPA2, the newest version of WPA, offers the most protection. When you set up your wireless network, choose WPA2 if it is available; if not your next option should be WPA and then WEP. When you set up your network, you have the option of choosing a password in most cases. You will want to set up a password. Always choose a strong password (8 or more characters including a mixture of lower and uppercase alphabetical, numeric, and symbolic characters). As an additional precaution, some people choose to hide the SSID, so that casual strangers will not see the network. If you hide it, you need to access it by identifying it first. Anyone serious about gaining access can use equipment that will sniff out a network with a hidden SSID, so doing that does not offer a great deal of additional protection with respect to the efforts of a skillful and dedicated hacker. However, it may keep the casual user off your network, as the casual user probably will not know how to find it or have the necessary equipment to enable location of the hidden SSID. Many people still employ this technique, often using it as the only security, avoiding the choice and implementation of a password. That approach does not provide much security and you should not rely on it. While I have nothing against hiding the SSID, I honestly do not think it offers enough additional benefit to overcome the associated inconvenience. I choose to rely on secure passwords to restrict access.

Additional Networks Offer Real Advantages

A second (or third) network at home or work can give you better security. That way you can provide wireless access to friends, clients, or other attorneys as a courtesy, without allowing them into your office or personal network where they may be able to access your personal information or client information. Many newer routers allow you to set up dual networks. The dual network devices cost a bit more but represent a good value when you factor in the security they offer.

Troubleshooting Your WiFi Network

Unfortunately, WiFi does not always work perfectly, even when set up properly. When it fails to work, it can create a very frustrating situation—it can cut you off from your network facilities (such as a networked printer or network-attached storage) or leave you connected to them, but cut off from the Internet. If your network stops working, there are things you try to set it right.

Verify your settings. Make sure your device has the WiFi setting turned on if you want to use WiFi. If the setting is off, your device cannot connect to a WiFi network. Also make sure you have selected the correct network and properly entered the password. While you can set most devices to reconnect automatically to a network to which they have previously connected, sometimes that does not work. Sometimes a system update or another event changes your settings, so double check to make sure your devices match your expectations and the network’s requirements. Try reentering your password as well. If all appears in order, try telling your device to forget that particular network (meaning it won’t automatically reconnect) and then reconnect manually (if that works and you have chosen automatic login, it should reconnect automatically to that network going forward).

Check with your provider. If you cannot get through to the Internet but can connect to your network internally, start by checking with your provider. If your provider has an outage, you will not be able to connect to the Internet until your provider corrects the problem. That you cannot connect to the Internet, however, should not interfere with your ability to connect to other parts of your network internally.

Reset your equipment. Turning the equipment off, waiting a bit, and restarting it will reset most devices. We start by rebooting our device to see if that solves the problem. If it does not, we move to a more involved procedure. Power down the devices you are connecting to the network and then power down the network itself by turning off the router and the modem you use to connect to the Internet. If you have more devices plugged into your router, power all of them down. Even if the device has a power switch (not all do), pull the plug. It does not matter which end you disconnect (the end to the device or the plug that goes to the electrical source); but if you choose the former, mark the wires to ensure that you do not plug a power block into the wrong device—it may not work at all and you could damage or ruin the device (not all power supplies produce the same output, even if they have similar connectors). After you pull the plug on everything, wait a minute or two and then start reconnecting devices to the power source, exercising caution to ensure that you plug the right power connector to each device. When you reconnect, start with the device closest to the Internet connection and proceed one by one to restart the network. Wait until the network has restarted and the modem and router indicate that they have an Internet connection. Then start to power up and reconnect the computers and other devices. Ideally, you will have the patience to wait until one device indicates it is connected before you power up the next one. If this process doesn’t solve the problem, look for reset buttons on your modem and router. Repeat the procedure using the reset button this time.

Location. As your router likely will have to remain by your primary Internet connection, moving the connecting devices may prove the easiest to accomplish. If your network performance reflects intermittent problems, look for other wireless connections and electrical devices that might generate interference (fans, microwave ovens, etc.), and try to keep them as far away from your network devices as possible. Try to make sure that the router is at least three feet away from any other signal-generating device.

Change the band. If you cannot move your equipment far enough from the interference, try changing the band on which your router operates (if you have multiple systems—e.g., a wireless router—try to make sure that each operates on a channel. You can also try switching the frequency, if you have a router that operates on more than one frequency—2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz are the most common). Be sure to consider different channels and frequencies in connection with any relocation of the router or your connecting devices, as different frequencies and channels may perform differently at the same location.

Boost your coverage. If you still have connection problems after going through the procedures suggested above, you may have a dead spot in your network. A dead spot means you get little or no wireless signal to that location. If you have one or more dead spots, consider adding a repeater (sometimes also called a signal booster or a range extender). These devices (usually around $50) get set up between the primary router and the dead spot. They receive and rebroadcast the signal from the router. They can create or increase the signal to your dead spot, curing the problem.

Jeffrey M. Allen

Jeffrey M. Allen is the principal of Graves & Allen in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker and writer on technology topics, he is editor-in-chief of GPSolo magazine and GPSolo eReport, an editorial board member of the ABA Journal and Experience magazine, author of jallenlawtekblog.com, co-author of Technology Solutions for Today’s Lawyer (ABA 2013) and iPad® for Lawyers (West 2013), and a liaison to the ABA Standing Committee on Technology and Information Services. In addition to being licensed as an attorney in California, he has been admitted as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. He is an associate professor at California State University of the East Bay. He also works extensively as an arbitrator and a mediator.