A do-it-yourself guide to wireless networking
August 14, 2005
If you’re at that point in your computing lifestyle where you have more than one computer at home, more than one person with a computer, you want to share resources and you hate dragging a network cable through the living room so you can relax on the couch, then you’re ready to go wireless.
Fueled by fast Internet connections, low-cost wireless routers and built-in support in Windows XP, home wireless networking has become mainstream. Wireless routers typically connect four wireless devices to the network and can be set up for less than $100.
Setting your network up is almost as easy as that, but let’s give some thought to that broadcasting station you’re about to set up.
Where do you start? Here’s an overview of how to setup and configure a wireless network at home with basic security features. This article presumes you already have a fast (DSL) Internet connection, have a computer running XP SP2, and are comfortable with basic hardware/software installation and configuration.
What you’ll needA wireless router using Wireless 802.11g protocol and Wi-Fi Protected Access, or WPA for short. (There is a newer standard out called WPA2, but for the purposes of this article, we will use the more common WPA.) These devices are available online or locally. Popular brands are Belkin, LinkSys, D-Link and Netgear.A wireless network card for your desktop computer. Make sure it’s compatible with the router.Most new notebooks come equipped with wireless network cards, so check yours first if you plan on using it in your wireless network. You may or may not need a wireless card for it as well.A USB flash drive if you’ll be setting up more than one computer for your wireless network.Hardware installationInstall the wireless network card in your computer. Do this the safe way by turning it off, unplugging it and grounding yourself before you remove the card from the static-proof wrapping. Install it in a free slot according to your owner’s manual. Don’t power it back up just yet.Next, install your wireless router. This should consist of simply replacing your existing DSL interface box with the router, plugging in the phone interface cable and finally plugging the router into a wall outlet with the correct voltage.At this point, you should reconnect your computer to the router by plugging the network cable (soon to be eliminated) into one of the router’s four ports. This will allow you to configure the wireless network while still working through a wired connection.Give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve just completed the hardware setup. Now it’s time to configure your wireless network. This may seem daunting, but fortunately Windows XP SP2 has a handy Wireless Network Setup Wizard that makes it painless.
Router configurationOur next steps will be to tell the router to operate in a secure mode. We’ll do that by installing the software that came with your route, creating a Secure Set ID (SSID) and a strong password (passphrase).
Power up your computer and the router.Install your router’s software and launch the router administration program.Configuration will vary by manufacturer, but here is what you want to do:Turn on the wireless capability.Assign a strong name for your SSID. This will be the name of your network. Do not accept the default. See the sidebar on Securing your network to see what a strong name consists of.Assign or choose WPA-PSK as the authentication method. This tells the router that anyone who wants access to your network must have the correct passphrase.Assign a very strong passphrase. Again, do not use the default. (See the sidebar on securing your network for help on how to choose a strong passphrase.)Write the SSID and passphrase down and store them somewhere safe.Follow any further instructions required by the software or router manufacturer, save and close the configuration.You’ve now configured the router to require a passphrase before accessing the wireless network.You can disconnect the computer cable. You’re wireless now!Network card setupYour computer should have automatically recognized the new network card and have a wireless connection icon in the system tray. Right-click it and choose View Available Wireless Networks. (If there is no wireless connection icon in the system tray, you also can fire up the Wireless Network Setup Wizard from the Control Panel.)Go to Network Tasks, and choose Set up a Wireless Network for Home or Small Office, then Next. Enter the SSID you used for your network. It must match exactly what you used for the router configuration.Click on Manually Assign a Network Key.Choose WPA encryption (instead of WEP), then Next.On the next screen, uncheck the Hide Characters as I Type box and enter the same passphrase you used when configuring the router.It must be exactly the same as what you entered when configuring the router. Click Next.Select Use a USB flash drive (if you have one and have another computer to configure) otherwise, choose Set up a Network Manually. By using a USB drive, the wizard will copy all configuration settings there and you can then use the USB drive to automatically configure other computers for access to your network. Click Next.Read and follow the remainder of the very simple instructions on the following two screens to copy the information to your USB drive and print copies of the configuration for safekeeping — always a good idea. Click Finish when done.For any other computers you wish to set up on your network, simply plug in the USB drive to the computer, wait for it to be recognized, and chose Wireless Network Setup Wizard from the pop-up window to automatically configure it for your network with the same correct settings.Congratulations, you’ve set up your wireless network.
Securing your network
Luckily, you’ve purchased a WPA-ready router, which supports strong security. Now that you’ve installed a broadcasting station in your home, you must be more cautious of hackers than when connecting through an Ethernet cable.
In essence, WPA provides security by assigning a Service Set Identifier — think of it as the name you’ll give your wireless network — and requiring anyone who wants to connect to your network to have a passphrase, which is just like a password. You’ve already taken steps to tell your router and network card to operate in secure mode, now we’ll add the final touch.
Your wireless network security is only as strong as your SSID name and the passphrase.
For your SSID name, don’t use the default! This will be the name of your network and will be visible to anyone within range. A random mix of letters, numbers and special characters is far better than “Bob’s Network — C’mon in!”For your passphrase, again, don’t accept a default value and random is better. Here you definitely want to use a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters. Make the passphrase at least 20 characters long, but it can be as long as 63 characters. Remember that this password is just as susceptible to cracking as any other, so make it a good one.More information
More tips on wireless networks and how to secure them can be found at computer and vendor sites, such as: