Wireless networks in a wired world

In the SSL/CW list of top IT skills, wireless Lan is 27

In the SSL/CW list of top IT skills, wireless Lan is 27

What is it?

There are many kinds of wireless local area network technologies, but currently dominating the market is a two-way, high-bandwidth, short-range data communications system closely related to Ethernet.

Wireless networking can be used to link two computers or a whole workgroup, and it can extend or replace a conventional wired network.

Public wireless networks are being set up by big telcos such as BT and smaller businesses such as internet cafes. These public access points can be used to access the internet and e-mail.

The most popular wireless network standard, 802.11b, is claimed to deliver data rates of 11mbps, and realistically offers between 5mbps and 6mbps. This should be enough to provide three users with good quality video or a similar high-bandwidth application, alternatively, it can support a dozen or more light users. The 802.11a standard, which is slowly coming into general use, provides a notional speed of 54mbps.

Where did it originate?

In one form or another, wireless networking has been in development for the past 30 years, but the current mass market has grown from the ratification and industry-wide acceptance of the 802.11x (Wi-Fi) standards set in the past couple of years.

What is it for?

Wireless Lans can be used for many of the same purposes as cable-based Lans but at much lower speeds. Sharing internet access is one of the most common reasons for installing a wireless Lan. It can be used where no wired Lan exists, if there is no funding or time to build one, or where buildings are structurally unsuitable for cabling.

What makes it special?

Now industry standards are in place, it is possible to mix and match components from different suppliers. Windows XP and the Macintosh OSX operating system already support wireless Lan standards.

Wireless Lan technology is cheap. An interface card for a laptop costs between £30 and £50, and enterprise-class access points, capable of supporting large numbers of users, are less than £1,000. Wireless Lans also use the unlicensed public spectrum, so they are not subject to the licensing costs of 3G wireless.

How difficult is it?

The attraction of "hotspot in a box" wireless Lan packages is that anybody can build a small wireless Lan or public access point. But building a large wireless Lan and integrating it with an existing wired Lan needs professional network design skills. Network administrators will have to learn wireless, but this should not present problems to anyone with an Ethernet background.

Where is it used?

The public sector - schools in particular are installing wireless Lans, as are private companies. Now organisations of all kinds and sizes are looking at the benefits.

Don't confuse...

A hotspot in a box with a tub of acne cream.

What systems does it run on?

The 802.11a and 802.11b standards are not compatible, although suppliers are introducing dual-standard equipment that will allow them to co-exist.

Not many people know that...

You can freeload on other people's wireless networks. Look out for chalked symbols on pavements and walls.

What is coming up?

Intel has included a wireless interface card as a standard feature of its Centrino mobile chip technology in notebook PCs.


There are many training courses available, including subjects such as planning a network, wireless security, GPRS and wireless virtual private networks. See the WiFi Alliance website for links www.weca.net

Rates of pay

Lan designers can get £35,000 to £45,000 and Lan administrators £20,000 to £30,000.

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