Sometimes, it’s difficult getting technology and Maltese houses to get on together. None more so than when it gets to Wi-Fi, thick limestone walls and a bewildering choice of terminologies you have to navigate to find a solution to a simple problem: I want to access the Web in my home without getting tangled in wires. In this piece, Steve Hall navigates through the options for ubiquitous Wi-Fi in the home.
As with all computer technologies, Wi-Fi outfits come in several relishes. Selecting the one most suitable for you can be a chore in itself. Sure, you can pick up any Access Point and USB Wi-Fi stick from your local computer store, but if you’re after a reliable connection with decent coverage and sufficient speed, read on.
To have devices from different manufacturers talk with each other requires some form of a standard to be in force. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has been responsible for some of the world’s greatest technical standards including Wi-Fi. Continuous development of the standard over time has resulted in a number of incarnations identified by a single lower-case letter suffix to the numeric identifier of the standard ‘802.11’. Each variant has its own set of speed, range and interference characteristics. In order to maintain the fast-facts objective of this article we’ll keep our focus on the milestone incarnations.
The original standard was established in 1997. It was designed to provide a bandwidth (speed of data transfer) of 2Mbps (Millions of bits per second). This may come across as pretty quick if you’re unfamiliar with this unit of measure. Truth is – it’s pathetic. This standard was upgraded within less than two years to provide much higher speeds exceeding even the wired equivalents of its time.
802.11a & 802.11b were established at around the same time and provided 54Mbps and 11Mbps respectively. The 11Mbps ‘b’ standard was targeted for domestic installations and offered a greater coverage. Two typical nine-inch Maltese walls were just about the limit. The 54Mbps ‘a’ standard was more expensive and therefore more exclusive to business installations. Ironically the ‘a’ standard had a shorter range of coverage than the ‘b’ standard however a business’s craving for faster speeds simply added more Access Points all over the place to overcome this drawback.
802.11g emerged in 2002 combining the speed of ‘a’ with the coverage of ‘b’. This standard is currently still the most popular and is used in both business and domestic systems.
802.11n is the latest incarnation and claims at least double the speed of ‘g’ and three times the coverage! I’ve witnessed this get past four typical nine-inch Maltese walls! You’d be right to think that 802.11n is the obvious way forward but as with everything else’ tech’ there’s still some substance going for the older 802.11g.
Compatibility – each standard is only compatible with its own sort. So having an access point that’s ‘n’ won’t talk to a device that’s ‘g’. Luckily, the better manufacturers have pre-empted this and made most Access Points support the major previous standards.
Speed – How much do you really need? With internet speeds currently peeking at around 20Mbps even the 54Mpbs provided by 802.11g will suffice for the foreseeable future. If on the other hand you’re operating a LAN on your Wi-Fi infrastructure then you may need the impressive performance offered by 802.11n.
Cost – 802.11n devices carry the higher price tag even when compared to 802.11g. So unless you absolutely need it you may well be spending your change on some extra internet bandwidth.
Coverage – Nothing compares to the penetrating power of 802.11n so if coverage is a priority ‘n’ is the way to go. Keeping security in-check however, you wouldn’t want your signals to travel too far! So do keep 802.11g on the cards.
OK, enough said – You’ve forked out for the more expensive 802.11n Access Point. You set it up and like everyone else who’s been down that road, you only achieve a speed and range of the 802.11g standard! Disappointed?
You may be surprised to note that most of the devices (laptops, smartphones, internet radios etc.) are equipped with 802.11g interfaces at best and therefore associating them to a faster ‘n’ Access Point simply doesn’t magically transform them into ‘n’ capable devices! In order to get the faster speed and Maltese wall-blasting power of the newer 802.11n Access Point you will need to add an external 802.11n network interface to your device. These 802.11n interfaces come in several formats. Two of the most popular formats are PCI Cards particularly suitable for standard desktop PC’s and USB Sticks which are generally used for Laptops but may also be used for desktop PC’s.
When upgrading to 802.11n it is generally advisable to stick with a single brand for both the Access Point and Device Interface. This ensures maximum reliability, performance and practically guarantees that the setup will work straight out-of-the-box.
If your lovely Maltese walls are hindering your Wi-Fi coverage, go for 802.11n but remember, you’ll also need to budget for upgrading all your devices!
IEEE logo is a registered trademark of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. WIFI Certified Logo is a registered trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance.
Photo: Andrew Galea Debono
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