WiFi and Wireless Networks Simplified

{Origianlly published in the Western New York Paralegal Association newsletter, 2007-08}

All techno-jargon aside, we all know that computers, phones, printers, and other devices communicate without wires all the time in today’s offices and cities. The two main ways are Bluetooth and WiFi. They use different signals and patterns of data, just like television and radio are on different wavelength bands and read by different machines.

Bluetooth is most common for individual devices to “talk” to each other, such as a cell phone and a wireless headset, or a palm pilot and a computer, synchronizing data such as a schedule calendar or address book. It’s also used as a substitute for infrared connections, such has printers and keyboards, but does not require direct line of sight (like a TV remote). It is considered idea for simple devices sharing small amounts of information.

Most networks, however, use WiFi (associated with some “802.11” standard, the number you will see on many device boxes when you buy them). It can have a range currently of up to about 300 feet. That means two important things. First, you can network a bunch of computers together with a WiFi wireless router. Secondly, people with a laptop can go into such a zone — a “WiFi hot spot” — and access the network, which also can mean Internet access if the network is set up to share a connection to the Internet.

The good news is that being able to connect to a WiFi network is easy. All you have to do is have a computer with a wireless (WiFi) card and physically be in the hotspot (range of the signal).

There are hotspots cropping up all over the world, in cities and towns, hotel lobbies and food courts. Some are advertised more than others, and there are many web sites that list and map out publicly available hotspots. Just be aware that most places provide the connection for free, but not all. For example, access at Panera Breads currently is free, while Starbucks charges a fee (call ahead for rates). However, if the Starbucks is across the street from a hotel lobby, you may be in range and use theirs.

Some municipalities are even working toward universal connectivity by turning a downtown area, village, or even a whole county into a “hotspot” with coverage throughout. This will be much easier with new technology being developed as we speak to increase range and set up infrastructure.

But for businesses and individuals with their own wireless network, the bad news is the same as the good news — being able to connect to a WiFi network is TOO easy. If you have a network that is not secure, anyone within the router’s reception area can access any shared files, printers, or Internet connections on the network. It could mean people in the next office over — or even someone parked on the street nearby — could potentially access your network. It may or may not matter if your neighbors “borrow” your Internet connection, but any shared files, depending on the setup of the network, could potentially be copies (stolen), deleted, or changed.

To secure a network does not mean having a “firewall” to prevent attacks from the outside world, which used to mean just your Internet connection. It means giving out rights to some machines and not others, just as in a wired network. This is ordinarily done by installing an encrypted “key” — a long series of numbers and letters — on computers that are supposed to have access. A company’s technical support people should be able to handle this, or you can read the instructions that come with the purchase of a wireless card. The key is generated by the computer that controls the router, the instructions for which come with that device when you buy it. That way, when someone using a wireless-capable laptop strolls by the office or home where there is a network, it will still show up as available to access, but not be able to do so — unless they have the key.

Lastly, be aware that if you have files on your laptop that are “shared” (in a networked folder, common for personal computers since Windows XP) may be accessible to other people on a network, even a public one.

As a businessperson or professional, the important thing is that it is your responsibility to protect your data, which often includes clients’ data. Medical, legal, and financial professions in particular may be required to protect such information and may be held liable if it is stolen when it could have been protected by simple networking security. There are actually people hunting for it, scouring office buildings and neighborhoods for an unsecured network with sellable information.

The bottom line is that the world we live in is going wireless in leaps and bounds. Apart from the risks of not knowing the basics of how it works, understanding WiFi and wireless networks is a blessing too great to pass up. Soon — very soon — you will be able to access anything, at any time, from anywhere, and wireless is the way it will be done.