Why you must own a wireless network – not!

There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about computer technology. These misconceptions normally come from sources such as a poorly trained sales person or that “computer guru” who lives down the hall from you. Lately, however, I have been seeing more and more shocking misconceptions coming from major technology web sites.

I read an article recently, on a prominent tech web site, which touted how necessary it was for me to own a wireless router. The article left me with the overall impression that wireless networking was way better than wired. A shocking and misleading misconception. Here’s three good reasons why wired networking is better than wireless:

Reason one, speed. Although, wireless data speed standards (like the newly ratified 802.11N standard) are getting faster, they cannot presently beat the data transfer speeds on a wired connection. Moreover, most wireless routers currently in use only go as far as wireless 802.11G standard (54 to 108 Mbps) – and in some cases can’t handle high data transfer rates well. So, for example, if you’re trying to stream a movie, you may encounter playback stuttering (even if you have very high speed broadband) because of your wireless network. As well, data transfer hiccups on a wireless network can occur even when you have features enabled to prevent them, like quality of service (QOS.)

Another factor which can affect wireless network speed is that your wireless router and computer may not like each other. In other words, either due to subtle incompatibilities in hardware, software, firmware or whatever, your wireless router and computer may have trouble communicating. When they do manage to communicate, it is usually at a slower speed than what the devices are rated to communicate at. For instance, I have two netbooks (an HP and a ASUS) which use the same wireless router. The HP netbook connects fine with the router with no problems whereas the ASUS often has issues and sometimes refuses to connect at all. Even though I’ve upgraded the router’s firmware to the latest version, upgraded the wireless device drivers on the ASUS to the latest versions, the problem still exists. This incompatibility factor is not often talked about in regards to wireless networking, but it often can rear its ugly head in exasperating, inexplicable speed issues.

One other major issue that may affect wireless network speed are the types of devices attached to it. Let’s say that you’ve have a 802.11N router with devices attached that are mixed 802.11G/N. There’s a high probability that the router will slow everything down to G rates including the N devices. This is because the router has to best manage the data pathways to all the devices attached to it, which, in some cases, is accomplished by slowing down. Even if everything on your wireless network is N standard, your router may slow itself down to G. This is because some of the newer N routers can detect the close proximity of G networks. If the G networks are too close, your N router may go into a “good neighbor” mode and slow down to G standard.

First bottom line, if you are doing anything which involves moving a lot of data around from computer to computer, a wired connection is the best way to go. As of this writing, there is no consumer wireless networking technology that can beat the speed performance of a 100 Mbps or 1000 Mbps wired network. Wireless networking technology that outstrips wired networking may exist in some government black ops facility (and that would be a secret, so shush) but it does not now exist in the consumer world.

Reason two, stability. A wireless network can be affected by several factors such as distance, radio frequency congestion, etc that can cause anything from slowdowns to dropped connections. Even though your wireless router states its speed as 108 Mbps, the actual speed you get may vary. Many times the actual connection speed may be up to two thirds less than than the rated speed even if you are relatively close to the router. More often, wireless connection speeds may become unstable and vary wildly throughout a computing session. The reasons behind why wireless networks can be unstable are obvious as well as hidden.

A major factor that can affect a wireless network stability is what the routers radio transmission has to travel through to get to you. If, for instance, there are a few walls between your laptop and the wireless router, you may encounter issues such as slow speeds or dropped connections. In other words, you could have a scenario such as this; your wireless router is in your basement and the computer that connects to it is in the den above the basement. Due to the construction of the basement, the router’s signal may be bouncing of the ceiling, barely making it to the computer, and thereby causing connection problems.

What your wireless router has to compete with also affects wireless networking stability. Most wireless routers transmit on the 2.4 GHz radio frequency. This is the same frequency that Bluetooth, many cordless phones or devices such as microwave ovens emit RF on. So, for example, if someone in your house turns on the microwave to pop some popcorn, your wireless network may drop dead in the process! To overcome this, you may be tempted to try the 802.11A standard which uses the 5.8 GHz radio frequency. You would quickly find (as have I) that this may not work either. Although, your 802.11A network would be safe from your microwave oven, it still would suffer from stability problems. The 5.8 GHz radio frequency has shorter wavelengths than the 2.4 GHz frequency. Simply put, a shorter radio wavelength means less distance traveled and more difficulty penetrating things (like walls) by the radio signal.  Consequently, you’d still be stuck with stability problems, no matter which standard was used, A or G.

Competition that your wireless router has to contend with, and which again affects stability, comes in forms other than a microwave. If you live in a typical neighborhood, like mine, there may be upwards twenty other homes that have wireless networks. Your network as well as your neighbor’s network are competing for the same radio spectrum space and radio channels. To put it in another way, your wireless data is doing a commute from a to b, similar to your commute back and forth to work. Just like there is sometimes roadway congestion often times preventing your timely arrival to work, the same thing happens in the wireless networking world. Also just as the weather can affect your real world commute, weather can affect wireless networking. Weather conditions can actually boost the effective range of a wireless signal. When this happens in a already wireless congested neighborhood, chances are that you will encounter stability problems.

Second bottom line, wired networks provide consistently better stability and are much less prone to slowdowns or dropped connections. As well, a wired network suffers none of the issues that wireless does, like radio frequency congestion or interference. So in other words, with a wired network, your kids can use the microwave to pop popcorn while you do your computing in peace. As well, you don’t have to worry about your neighbor crowding you out radio spectrum wise when the weather conditions are just right.

Reason three, security. A wireless network, because of its very nature, is easier to hack than a wired network. Although, a wireless router may be properly set up in terms of it’s firewall, security encryption and MAC filtering, it’s still broadcasting over the air. Anyone with a laptop loaded with the appropriate software can detect and hack wireless signals. Moreover, every current wireless security protocol can be now overcome by a hacker. In another analogy, a wireless network is like a wireless door to your house. As with the physical doors to your home, a determined hacker can kick in your wireless door. And once a miscreant gains access to your wireless network, they have access to everything attached to your network, wired or wireless. For instance, your neighbor who lives three doors down from you (who has successfully hacked into your wireless network), may be using your web-cam to spy on you! That same deviant, hacker neighbor of your’s (who may not be thrilled about how you look on the webcam), may also be stealing your broadband bandwidth for sole the purpose of surreptitiously downloading something like porn. Due to their illegal activity, on your wireless network, you get stuck with angry emails from your ISP – and – quite possibly a visit from the police! Consider too, that your wireless network can be hacked by someone who does not live in your neighborhood. Some of the more recent commercial data breaches happened due to someone driving around in a car and detecting wireless signals. In one case, the criminals just simply sat outside of stores in their cars with laptops and hacked into the wireless networks of the businesses where they detected a signal. The same type of thing is being done in residential neighborhoods – so yes, it can happen to you!

Third and final bottom line, a wired network is harder to break into. Since again, nothing is being broadcast over the air, the only access point that a hacker can try is the firewall in a wired only router. I’m not saying that a wired router can’t be hacked, it’s just that it’s more difficult to do so.

So if you’re considering setting up a computer network, and have to choose between wired or wireless, go with wired. Particularly, again, if you are doing anything that involves moving a lot of data around, like streaming movies from your media server to your home theater computer. If you do need wireless for a device like a iPod touch, consider getting a wireless access point for your wired network. BTW, if a wireless access point cannot be had, a wireless router can function as a AP, just by disabling its router functionality.

I know that there are cases where a wired network is impractical, thus, leaving you with wireless as the only option. As with anything in life, that’s the breaks, and you go with the only option that is available to you. If, however, the opportunity presents itself for you to construct a wired network (either through a new home construction, house rewire, or plain Jane do it yourself sweat equity) by all means take that opportunity. While you’re going about the business of building your wired network, remember also to ignore the naysayers who complain about the mess of wires. Again, as with everything in life, there are solutions to make a wired network neat while maintaining its functionality.

Which ever way you go, wired or wireless, make sure everything is setup properly security wise. Also, don’t be lulled into thinking that wireless is better than wired networking, no matter which prominent technology web site says so.