Wireless Home Network Problems


Wireless home networks are really great.† They allow you to connect a variety of devices without having to string wires all over your house.† You can set up your wireless access point near where your modem hooks up, but you can position your computer nearly everywhere you can pick up a signal.† You can install a wireless print server, allowing you to share a printer with all your networked computers.† You can install a wireless media adapter, allowing you to play the music stored on your computer through your home stereo, or show the pictures stored on your computer on your television.


Unfortunately, wireless home networks are also really bad.† They are bad for three reasons.† First, they are hard to hook up.† Second, they are inherently insecure, and the security features create a wealth of problems, forcing people to run unsecured networks.† Third, wireless home networks regularly fail in service.† This causes additional work troubleshooting and restoring the home network, which is problematic for the average home user.


Although wireless devices advertised as plug and play, they are actually quite difficult to get running properly.† Part of the problem is the proprietary software manufacturers now provide with their software.† This software is designed to work only with devices from the same manufacturer.† If you own wireless devices from different manufacturers, the software will not find the proprietary ďhooksĒ it is looking for, and will actually prevent your network from working.† But even if you have devices from the same manufacturer, often the proprietary software will require the security key to be set up individually for each user individual user, every time a new user logs on.† In effect, using the proprietary software locks a particular computer to a particular user.† But the manufacturers often force you to use their software, and provide no automatic way to disable their software and use the software that comes with the operating system.† Thus just using the wireless devices becomes a burden.


In addition, using a wireless network connection can dramatically increase the time your computer takes to boot up.† Many software programs are set to look on the internet for updates every time the computer boots up.† If the network connection is unavailable, the application will halt the boot process while it waits for a reply.† It may try this several times before releasing control back to the operating system, whereupon the next application does the very same thing.† This behavior can be changed a number of different ways, but all of them are quite complicated for the average user.† Many of these changes arenít safe to use---for example, your virus scanner generally looks for updates at boot time.† If you change this setting, your computer is potentially liable to virus infection until the next time it updates.†


Wireless home networks are inherently insecure.† Although security has improved, it is still too hard to set up.† The proprietary software designed to make the process easier will generally work only if all your network devices are from the same manufacturer, and running the same software.† Even then, the software can make things more difficult.† As described above, sometimes the software is written so that each different user has to input the wireless key when they log in.† The proprietary software somehow doesnít understand that a home computer with a wireless connection can be used by multiple users.† It should be possible to ďset it and forget it,Ē but instead, the software makes it more difficult.†


Wireless security problems increase if you are using wireless hardware from different manufacturers.† In this case the proprietary software doesnít work, and must be manually disabled each time to allow the operating system to manage the wireless connection.† In many cases the difficulties are such that the home user is forced to run the system unsecured, opening their home network up to attack.


Finally, wireless home networking regularly fails in service.† These failures are often not immediately apparent.† The system appears to be working properly.† There are no failure warnings.† In this case the solution, although relatively simple, is not immediately apparent.† (To correct this problem, shut down the computer, the wireless access point, the router---if used---and the modem.† Then turn them on in reverse order, allowing each to complete its reboot before turning the next device on.)† Sometimes the failure is apparent at boot up, but correcting the problem requires a second or third reboot or even a complete de-install and re-install of the software.†


My brethren, these things ought not to be.† The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE, established the 802.11 standards for wireless home networking.† Unfortunately their standards are not tight enough to prevent each manufacturer from creating proprietary software, locking the user into using only their own products, and also forcing the user into a constant upgrade cycle.† This creates an unsatisfactory and insecure user experience, creating more problems than it solves.


The standards agencies, having created this problem, are in no position to correct it.† The standards are set to the lowest common denominator that the member companies can agree upon, and tightening the standards will offend almost everyone.† It will not help to have the government seting the standards, as they are subject to political influences---where he who provides the cash makes the rules.† Only the market can correct this problem---and the market is an idiot.†


If people had access to all the information, they would make good decisions.† Unfortunately the computer magazines are careful not to bite the hand that feeds them, and the companies that provide the most ad revenue somehow always seem to get good reviews.† Any difficulties are quickly glossed over.† Furthermore, in many cities and towns the buyer is at the mercy of an uninformed sales force that is under orders to move merchandise, not to provide a valuable service. †Why sell the best product when they can sell a mediocre one and make money on service calls?† And so the consumer---and the computer industry---suffers.


I donít know what the solution is.† But I can suggest some things to lessen the problem.† First, buy all your hardware at the same time and from the same manufacturer.† Second, avoid off-brand products, as their software is more likely to be poorly written.† Third, avoid Linksys products, as for some reason they donít seem to work well together---their parent company is an enterprise networking company, and they donít seem to understand the home userís needs.† Fourth, do your own homework.† Read a number of online product reviews ahead of time, and look for the problem areas---such as setup difficulties that are described, but glossed over.† (If experts have problems, what chance do you have?)† Finally, you may just want to hire an expert to set up your system.† Letís face it, securing wireless setup isnít a job for the uninitiated.† Yes, wireless is really nice when it works, but making it secure and keeping it working is not easy.† If you canít program your VCR clock, what chance do you have in setting up something that is even more complicated?† Do yourself a favor and get some help.