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January 27, 2005

Wi-Fi is a nerd's delight

The other day I installed a Wi-Fi network at the home of a friend who is recovering from a quadruple bypass.  His cable modem is upstairs; his bedroom, kitchen, and living room are downstairs; and he can't get between the two very easily.  With one exception noted below, this installation has gotten very easy to do and the equipment incredibly cheap.

Doing this made me realize why I like wireless of all kinds so much: I'm a lousy carpenter.  In the bad old days, installing a network would have used all the skills I don't have like cutting into walls, fishing wires, and then making it all look good again.  I'm not the kind of guy you would want doing any of that to your house. But wireless has virtualized all of that.  I don't scar your walls when I send radio signals through them and it is a lot safer to have me install drivers on your machine than face plates in your baseboards.

I bought a Belkin F5D7231-4 Wireless G Router and a Belkin F5D7011 Wireless G Notebook Network Card, both at Circuit City.  Combined price was $160 but I'm getting back a total of $100 in store and manufacturer rebates.  I think this is because they are beginning to push "Pre-N" Wi-Fi and don't want to get stuck with the Wi-Fi G inventory.

The install wizard for the router was superb.  It runs on the PC which had been connected to the cable modem (Adelphia) and figures out everything it needs to know to sign on.  Really did work in five minutes; didn't ask me any questions; and, when it finished, the Internet connection was established.

The card installed without any significant problems in the laptop which is running Windows 2000 Pro.  Within half an hour of starting the job, the desktop computer connected through the Ethernet port on the router, my friend's laptop, and my laptop were all happily surfing.

When I tried to enable security, I ran into a problem.  I got 128-bit WEP working easily as far as the router and my laptop running Windows XP Pro were concerned.  No amount of tinkering could get the Windows 2000 Pro laptop to connect with WEP.  So I backed off and tried WPA security.  Same thing.  My computer is happy; my friend's laptop can't connect.  Can't find anything on the Belkin site about this so called tech support.

The good news is that they answered right away.  The bad news was that it took ten minutes of asking marketing questions before the woman's script allowed her to get to my problem.  Once I explained it, she put me on hold - presumably to seek an answer.  Eventually I was disconnected.  I hoped she'd call back since she had specifically asked for my number "in case we were cut off" but she didn't.  Since I don't have a ticket number yet and have lost patience with the preamble, I haven't called back yet.

Since I know my friend and his wife are security conscious, I used MAC address filtering as a clumsy workaround for WEP for now.  That meant when my friend's wife came home and wanted to plug her laptop into the router, I needed to find its MAC address and enable it.  No big deal but ugly.

BTW, the security concerns are real.  During the process of their installation, I twice accidentally logged onto other networks in the neighborhood which were unprotected.  And I wasn't trying to.

As if to validate my thesis, just as I was finishing writing this an electrician showed up at my door to do some work which I would do very poorly if at all.  When I showed him the room where the electrical and communication entrances are, he immediately saw my NETGEAR wireless hub and asked if that let multiple computers share my connection.  Says that's what he needs for his daughter and asked my advice on setting it up.

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