April 30, 2004

Overcoming Wi-Fi Networking Problems

If you've successfully set up a working wireless network, give yourself a pat on the back. Even with all of the security features disabled and using the default settings, they can be tricky little buggers to get up and running. However, if you haven't done much to change those default settings, you're leaving yourself wide open to attacks and other problems. Also, you might have found that your overall Wi-Fi range and user experience could use a little boost, but weren't sure how to do it. That's why I enjoyed PC World's feature article on "Beating the Wireless Blues" from their May 2004 issue.

It addresses a wide range of wireless networking problems and offers a number of troubleshooting ideas and solutions. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves for some of the items mentioned -- but this is why I liked this article over others which merely gloss over only the most common issues, or alternatively get too techie. While I thought the security advice could be a bit more robust, it did offer up some interesting bits.

For one, expect to see Intel 802.11g Centrino laptops this year, which is something I've been waiting for. Second, be extra careful with your WPA passphrase per the article: "Though this privacy standard is highly secure, a researcher reported in late 2003 that a passphrase less than 20 characters long composed entirely of words could be cracked. Use a longer passphrase, and include some punctuation marks or numbers for maximum security."

So how many of you are using 20+ WPA passphrases with mixed characters, case, and punctuation? Probably not enough. If you're still using 802.11b, be aware that newer "b" devices have WPA included, and some older ones have WPA patches available from the manufacturer, generally as firmware upgrades. You should be using this improved security feature over the vastly inferior and insecure WEP at all costs. While WPA isn't perfect, it's definitely better than WEP for encrypting and protecting your wireless network.

As I mentioned, I would have like to see a more complete security checklist, but the article appeared more focused on overcoming other obstacles to achieve a better user experience. Which is why I think it's helpful to include my list of Wireless Networking "Best Practices" for a fuller list of security items to address. Regardless, the PC World article is chock full of links to other great Wi-Fi articles and even provides a handy Wireless Networking Kit -- a list of essential hardware and software tools that no Wi-Fier should leave home without.

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets  |  Privacy & Security
Posted by Jeff Beard