Why Wireless?

Table of contents:

To dive into a specific technology at this point is getting a bit ahead of the story, though. Wireless networks share several important advantages, no matter how the protocols are designed, or even what type of data they carry.

The most obvious advantage of wireless networking is mobility. Wireless network users can connect to existing networks and are then allowed to roam freely. A mobile telephone user can drive miles in the course of a single conversation because the phone connects the user through cell towers. Initially, mobile telephony was expensive. Costs restricted its use to highly mobile professionals such as sales managers and important executive decision makers who might need to be reached at a moment's notice regardless of their location. Mobile telephony has proven to be a useful service, however, and now it is relatively common in the United States and extremely common among Europeans.[*]

[*] While most of my colleagues, acquaintances, and family in the U.S. have mobile telephones, it is still possible to be a holdout. In Europe, it seems as if everybody has a mobile phoneone cab driver in Finland I spoke with while writing the first edition of this book took great pride in the fact that his family of four had six mobile telephones!

Likewise, wireless data networks free software developers from the tethers of an Ethernet cable at a desk. Developers can work in the library, in a conference room, in the parking lot, or even in the coffee house across the street. As long as the wireless users remain within the range of the base station, they can take advantage of the network. Commonly available equipment can easily cover a corporate campus; with some work, more exotic equipment, and favorable terrain, you can extend the range of an 802.11 network up to a few miles.

Wireless networks typically have a great deal of flexibility, which can translate into rapid deployment. Wireless networks use a number of base stations to connect users to an existing network. (In an 802.11 network, the base stations are called access points.) The infrastructure side of a wireless network, however, is qualitatively the same whether you are connecting one user or a million users. To offer service in a given area, you need base stations and antennas in place. Once that infrastructure is built, however, adding a user to a wireless network is mostly a matter of authorization. With the infrastructure built, it must be configured to recognize and offer services to the new users, but authorization does not require more infrastructure. Adding a user to a wireless network is a matter of configuring the infrastructure, but it does not involve running cables, punching down terminals, and patching in a new jack.[]

images/ent/U2020.GIF border=0>] This simple example ignores the challenges of scale. Naturally, if the new users will overload the existing infrastructure, the infrastructure itself will need to be beefed up. Infrastructure expansion can be expensive and time-consuming, especially if it involves legal and regulatory approval. However, my basic point holds: adding a user to a wireless network can often be reduced to a matter of configuration (moving or changing bits) while adding a user to a fixed network requires making physical connections (moving atoms), and moving bits is easier than moving atoms.

Flexibility is an important attribute for service providers. One of the markets that many 802.11 equipment vendors have been chasing is the so-called "hot spot" connectivity market. Airports and train stations are likely to have itinerant business travelers interested in network access during connection delays. Coffeehouses and other public gathering spots are social venues in which network access is desirable. Many cafes already offer Internet access; offering Internet access over a wireless network is a natural extension of the existing Internet connectivity. While it is possible to serve a fluid group of users with Ethernet jacks, supplying access over a wired network is problematic for several reasons. Running cables is time-consuming and expensive and may also require construction. Properly guessing the correct number of cable drops is more an art than a science. With a wireless network, though, there is no need to suffer through construction or make educated (or wild) guesses about demand. A simple wired infrastructure connects to the Internet, and then the wireless network can accommodate as many users as needed. Although wireless LANs have somewhat limited bandwidth, the limiting factor in networking a small hot spot is likely to be the cost of WAN bandwidth to the supporting infrastructure.

Flexibility may be particularly important in older buildings because it reduces the need for construction. Once a building is declared historical, remodeling can be particularly difficult. In addition to meeting owner requirements, historical preservation agencies must be satisfied that new construction is not desecrating the past. Wireless networks can be deployed extremely rapidly in such environments because there is only a small wired network to install.

Flexibility has also led to the development of grassroots community networks. With the rapid price erosion of 802.11 equipment, bands of volunteers are setting up shared wireless networks open to visitors. Community networks are also extending the range of Internet access past the limitations for DSL into communities where high-speed Internet access has been only a dream. Community networks have been particularly successful in out-of-the way places that are too rugged for traditional wireline approaches.

Like all networks, wireless networks transmit data over a network medium. The medium is a form of electromagnetic radiation.[*] To be well-suited for use on mobile networks, the medium must be able to cover a wide area so clients can move throughout a coverage area. Early wireless networks used infrared light. However, infrared light has limitations; it is easily blocked by walls, partitions, and other office construction. Radio waves can penetrate most office obstructions and offer a wider coverage range. It is no surprise that most, if not all, 802.11 products on the market use the radio wave physical layer.

[*] Laser light is also used by some wireless networking applications, but the extreme focus of a laser beam makes it suited only for applications in which the ends are stationary. "Fixed wireless" applications, in which lasers replace other access technology such as leased telephone circuits, are a common application.

Radio Spectrum: The Key Resource

Wireless devices are constrained to operate in a certain frequency band. Each band has an associated bandwidth, which is simply the amount of frequency space in the band. Bandwidth has acquired a connotation of being a measure of the data capacity of a link. A great deal of mathematics, information theory, and signal processing can be used to show that higher-bandwidth slices can be used to transmit more information. As an example, an analog mobile telephony channel requires a 20-kHz bandwidth. TV signals are vastly more complex and have a correspondingly larger bandwidth of 6 MHz.

Early Adoption of 802 11

802.11's explosive advance has not been even. Some markets have evolved more quickly than others because the value of wireless networks is more pronounced in some markets. In general, the higher the value placed on mobility and flexibility, the greater the interest in wireless LANs.

Logistics organizations responsible for moving goods around (think UPS, FedEx, or airlines), were perhaps the earliest adopters of 802.11. Well before the advent of 802.11, package tracking was done with proprietary wireless LANs. Standardized products lowered the price and enabled competition between suppliers of network equipment, and it was an easy decision to replace proprietary products with standardized ones.

Health care has been an early adopter of wireless networks because of the great flexibility that is often required of health care equipment. Patients can be moved throughout a hospital, and the health care professionals that spend time with patients are among some of the most mobile workers in the economy. Technologically advanced health care organizations have adopted wireless LANs to make patient information available over wireless LANs to improve patient care by making information more accessible to doctors. Computerized records can be transferred between departments without the requirement to decipher the legendarily illegible doctor scrawls. In the cluttered environments of an emergency room, rapid access to imaging data can quite literally be a lifesaver. Several hospitals have deployed PCs to make radiology images available over wireless LANs on specially-equipped "crash carts" that offer instant access to X-rays, allowing doctors to make quick decisions without waiting for film to be developed.

Many eductional institutions have enthusiastically adopted wireless LANs. 10 years ago, colleges competed for students based on how "wired" the campus was. More high speed data ports everywhere was assumed to be better. Nowadays, the leading stories in education are the colleges using wireless LANs to blanket coverage throughout the campus. Students are highly mobile network users, and can benefit greatly from network access between classes or in their "homes away from home" (the library, studio, or science lab, depending on major).

Radio spectrum allocation is rigorously controlled by regulatory authorities through licensing processes. Most countries have their own regulatory bodies, though regional regulators do exist. In the U.S., regulation is done by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Many FCC rules are adopted by other countries throughout the Americas. European allocation is performed by the European Radiocommunications Office (ERO). Other allocation work is done by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). To prevent overlapping uses of the radio waves, frequency is allocated in bands, which are simply ranges of frequencies available to specified applications. Table 1-1 lists some common frequency bands used in the U.S.[*]

[*] The full spectrum allocation map is available from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at http://www.ntia.doc.gov/osmhome/allochrt.pdf.

Table 1-1. Common U.S. frequency bands


Frequency range


902-928 MHz


2-4 GHz

S-Band ISM

2.4-2.5 GHz


4-8 GHz

C-Band satellite downlink

3.7-4.2 GHz

C-Band Radar (weather)

5.25-5.925 GHz

C-Band ISM

5.725-5.875 GHz

C-Band satellite uplink

5.925-6.425 GHz


8-12 GHz

X-Band Radar (police/weather)

8.5-10.55 GHz


12-18 GHz

Ku-Band Radar (police)

13.4-14 GHz 15.7-17.7 GHz


The ISM bands

In Table 1-1, there are three bands labeled ISM, which is an abbreviation for industrial, scientific, and medical. ISM bands are set aside for equipment that, broadly speaking, is related to industrial or scientific processes or is used by medical equipment. Perhaps the most familiar ISM-band device is the microwave oven, which operates in the 2.4-GHz ISM band because electromagnetic radiation at that frequency is particularly effective for heating water.

I pay special attention to the ISM bands in the table because those bands allow license-free operation, provided the devices comply with power constraints. 802.11 operates in the ISM bands, along with many other devices. Common cordless phones operate in the ISM bands as well. 802.11b and 802.11g devices operate within the 2.4 GHz ISM band, while 802.11a devices operate in the 5 GHz band.

The more common 802.11b/g devices operate in S-band ISM. The ISM bands are generally license-free, provided that devices are low-power. How much sense does it make to require a license for microwave ovens, after all? Likewise, you don't need a license to set up and operate a low-power wireless LAN.

Introduction to Wireless Networking

Overview of 802.11 Networks

11 MAC Fundamentals

11 Framing in Detail

Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)

User Authentication with 802.1X

11i: Robust Security Networks, TKIP, and CCMP

Management Operations

Contention-Free Service with the PCF

Physical Layer Overview

The Frequency-Hopping (FH) PHY

The Direct Sequence PHYs: DSSS and HR/DSSS (802.11b)

11a and 802.11j: 5-GHz OFDM PHY

11g: The Extended-Rate PHY (ERP)

A Peek Ahead at 802.11n: MIMO-OFDM

11 Hardware

Using 802.11 on Windows

11 on the Macintosh

Using 802.11 on Linux

Using 802.11 Access Points

Logical Wireless Network Architecture

Security Architecture

Site Planning and Project Management

11 Network Analysis

11 Performance Tuning

Conclusions and Predictions

802.11 Wireless Networks The Definitive Guide
802.11 Wireless Networks: The Definitive Guide, Second Edition
ISBN: 0596100523
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 179
Authors: Matthew Gast

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