Computer networks for the home
and small business can be built using either wired or
wireless technology. Wired
has been the traditional choice, but
wireless technologies are gaining ground fast. Both wired
and wireless can claim advantages over the other; both
represent viable options for local area networks (LANs).
This article compares wired and wireless networking in the
following five key areas:
ease of installation
About Wired LANs
Wired LANs use Ethernet cables and network adapters.
Although two computers can be directly wired to each other
using a crossover cable, wired LANs generally also need
central devices like hubs, switches, or routers to
accommodate more computers.
For dial-up connections to the Internet, the computer
hosting the modem must run Internet Connection Sharing or
similar software to share the connection with all other
computers on the LAN. Broadband routers allow easier sharing
of cable modem or DSL Internet connections, plus they often
include built-in firewall support.
Ethernet cables must be run from each computer to another
computer or to the central device. It can be time-consuming
and difficult to run cables under the floor or through
walls, especially when computers sit in different rooms.
Some newer homes are pre-wired with CAT5 cable, greatly
simplifying the cabling process and minimizing unsightly
The correct cabling configuration for a wired LAN varies
depending on the mix of devices, the type of Internet
connection, and whether internal or external modems are
used. However, none of these options pose any more
difficulty than, for example, wiring a home theater system.
After hardware installation, the remaining steps in
configuring either wired or wireless LANs do not differ
much. Both rely on standard Internet Protocol and network
operating system configuration options.
Ethernet cables, hubs and switches are very inexpensive.
Some connection sharing software packages, like ICS, are
free; some cost a nominal fee. Broadband routers cost more,
but these are optional components of a wired LAN, and their
higher cost is offset by the benefit of easier installation
and built-in security features.
Ethernet cables, hubs and switches are extremely reliable,
mainly because manufacturers have continually improved
Ethernet technology for the past twenty years. Loose cables
likely remain the single most common and annoying source of
failure in a wired network. When installing a wired LAN or
moving any of the components later, be sure to carefully
check the cable connections.
Broadband routers have also suffered from some reliability
problems in the past. Unlike other Ethernet gear, these
products are relatively new, multi-function devices.
Broadband routers have matured over the past several years
and their reliability has improved greatly.
Wired LANs offer superior performance. Traditional Ethernet
connections offer only 10 Mbps bandwidth, but 100 Mbps Fast
Ethernet technology costs little more and is readily
available. Although 100 Mbps represents a theoretical
maximum performance never really achieved in practice, Fast
Ethernet should be sufficient for home file sharing, gaming,
and high-speed Internet access for many years into the
Wired LANs utilizing hubs can suffer performance slowdown if
computers heavily utilize the network simultaneously. Use
Ethernet switches instead of hubs to avoid this problem; a
switch costs little more than a hub.
For any wired LAN connected to the Internet, firewalls are
the primary security consideration. Wired Ethernet hubs and
switches do not support firewalls. However, firewall
software products like ZoneAlarm can be installed on the
computers themselves. Broadband routers offer equivalent
firewall capability built into the device, configurable
through its own software.
About Wireless LANs
Popular WLAN technologies all
follow one of the three main
communication standards. The benefits of wireless networking
depend on the standard employed:
was the first standard to be widely used in WLANs.
standard is faster but more expensive than 802.11b;
802.11a is more commonly found in business networks.
The newest standard,
attempts to combine the best of both 802.11a and
802.11b, though it too is more a more expensive home
Wi-Fi networks can be configured in two different ways:
"Ad hoc" mode allows wireless devices to communicate in
peer-to-peer mode with each other.
"Infrastructure" mode allows wireless devices to
communicate with a central node that in turn can
communicate with wired nodes on that LAN.
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Most LANs require infrastructure mode to access the
Internet, a local printer, or other wired services, whereas
ad hoc mode supports only basic file sharing between
Both Wi-Fi modes require
wireless network adapters, sometimes called WLAN cards.
Infrastructure mode WLANs additionally require a central
device called the
The access point must be installed in a central location
where wireless radio signals can reach it with minimal
interference. Although Wi-Fi signals typically reach 100
feet (30 m) or more, obstructions like walls can greatly
reduce their range.
Wireless gear costs somewhat more than the equivalent wired
Ethernet products. At full retail prices, wireless adapters
and access points may cost three or four times as much as
Ethernet cable adapters and hubs/switches, respectively.
802.11b products have dropped in price considerably with the
release of 802.11g, and obviously, bargain sales can be
found if shoppers are persistent.
Wireless LANs suffer a few more reliability problems than
wired LANs, though perhaps not enough to be a significant
concern. 802.11b and 802.11g wireless signals are subject to
interference from other home applicances including microwave
ovens, cordless telephones, and garage door openers. With
careful installation, the likelihood of interference can be
Wireless networking products, particularly those that
implement 802.11g, are comparatively new. As with any new
technology, expect it will take time for these products to
Wireless LANs using 802.11b support a maximum theoretical
bandwidth of 11 Mbps, roughly the same as that of old,
traditional Ethernet. 802.11a and 802.11g WLANs support 54
Mbps, that is approximately one-half the bandwidth of Fast
Ethernet. Furthermore, Wi-Fi performance is distance
sensitive, meaning that maximum performance will degrade on
computers farther away from the access point or other
communication endpoint. As more wireless devices utilize the
WLAN more heavily, performance degrades even further.
Overall, the performance of 802.11a and 802.11g is
sufficient for home Internet connection sharing and file
sharing, but generally not sufficient for home LAN gaming.
The greater mobility of wireless LANs helps offset the
performance disadvantage. Mobile computers do not need to be
tied to an Ethernet cable and can roam freely within the
WLAN range. However, many home computers are larger desktop
models, and even mobile computers must sometimes be tied to
an electrical cord and outlet for power. This undermines the
mobility advantage of WLANs in many homes.
In theory, wireless LANs are
less secure than wired LANs, because wireless communication
signals travel through the air and can easily be
intercepted. To prove their point, some engineers have
promoted the practice of
that involves traveling through a residential area with
Wi-Fi equipment scanning the airwaves for unprotected WLANs.
On balance, though, the weaknesses of wireless security are
more theoretical than practical. WLANs protect their data
through the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)
encryption standard, that makes wireless communications
reasonably as safe as wired ones in homes.
No computer network is completely secure and homeowners
should research this topic to ensure they are aware of and
comfortable with the risks. Important security
considerations for homeowners tend to not be related to
whether the network is wired or wireless but rather
the home's Internet firewall is properly configured
the family is familiar with the danger of Internet
"spoof emails" and how to recognize them
the family is familiar with the concept of "spyware" and
how to avoid it
babysitters, housekeepers and other visitors do not have
unwanted access to the network
You've studied the analysis and are ready to make your
decision. Bottom line, then, which is better - wired or
wireless? The table below summarizes the main criteria we've
considered in this article. If you are very cost-conscious,
need maximum performance of your home system, and don't care
much about mobility, then a wired Ethernet LAN is probably
right for you.
If on the other hand, cost is less of an issue, you like
being an early adopter of leading-edge technologies, and you
are really concerned about the task of wiring your home or
small business with Ethernet cable, then you should
certainly consider a wireless LAN.
Many of you will naturally fall somewhere in between these
two extremes. If you're still undecided, consider asking
friends and family about their experiences with building