Wired for Success: A Tool for Understanding Your Wireless Network

A wireless network is similar to a wired network, but instead of using cables, it communicates using radio frequency signals. There are dozens of different flavors of wireless networking: Cell phones, satellites and radios all communicate wirelessly. For the purposes of this program, however, the term “wireless networking” refers to a technique for interconnecting computers wirelessly at the building level. This kind of wireless network is sometimes described as wi-fi, an 802.11 network or a “wireless local access network (LAN)” or “WLAN.” These networks have a radius of 300 feet under ideal circumstances.

At a minimum, there are three pieces to a wireless network:

  • First, there’s the wireless access point. The center of a wireless network acts like the hub, or switch, of your wired network, though it also has many of the features of a standard router. On one side, it connects to the Internet, usually through a standard Ethernet cable, and on the other side, it broadcasts a wireless signal
  • Also, there are “wireless devices.” These are the computers and gadgets that use the access point in order to hook into your network and your Internet connection. The first wireless device that comes to mind for most people is a laptop computer. However, there are hundreds of gadgets that can access wireless networks these days. Library patrons use cell phones, smartphones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), personal gaming devices (like Playstation) and more to connect themselves to wireless networks. Through the rest of this book, “laptop” will be used as shorthand for all of the wireless devices out there.
  • Each wireless device has a wireless network adapter — a specific piece of hardware that connects a computer to a WLAN. Wireless adapters come in all shapes and sizes. Some adapters are built into the computer. Others need to be purchased separately and then plugged into the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port or PC Card port.

A Basic Wireless Network