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More on wi-fi

The world is slowly going wi-fi, and as the technology's a common feature on our shows, we thought we'd add some information on wireless technology, and what wi-fi offers


What is wi-fi?

We first featured wi-fi in Show #05 of our podcast, and revisited the subject in Show 40. wi-fi is a protocol that allows fast exchange of data over a wireless network. For consumers, there are several practical uses:

  • Connect your PC to a broadband router without needing to run ethernet cables to your router and phone socket.
  • Share your connection without wires - If you have more than one computer, perhaps a laptop or a PDA (or even a Nabaztag) then they can share your Internet connection over wi-fi.
  • Home entertainment - You can stream MP3 or Internet radio around the house without wires.
  • Other equipment - Such as a printer or a wireless webcam, can be connected to your system wirelessly.
  • Voice-over-IP. With a suitable phone, you can make use of a special wi-fi phone to make and receive cheap/free calls over the Internet, wirelessly. There are handsets around, such as the wi-fi phone from SMC Networks for use on Skype, or the BT Hub Phone.
  • Home networking - Share out folders and files on your PC, to be picked up by other devices

We featured wi-fi, and ways to get a better wireless connection in Show 40.

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What else should I know about wi-fi?

  • There are three different standards: 802.11b - the first version, with speeds to up to 11 megabits a second, then 802.11g - much faster at 54Mbps. Now, we have 802.11n - even faster with a better range
  • Range - Varies, but typically good enough to connect the average house
  • Security - Make sure you enable WPA security, to help stop people in range of your setup hijacking your connection
  • wi-fi Max could be coming soon. This involves wide-area wi-fi, perhaps for a small town or community

How do I get wi-fi?

Essentially, it's a case of looking for wi-fi enabled equipment. Here's a quick example of what you may need to wi-fi your home:

wi-fi example: A household has a desktop PC and a laptop. The house already has a broadband connection, but the family wants to be able to share the Internet connection wirelessly.

There are several different ways of setting up a house for wi-fi access, but for this example, we'll pick a common method, to give you some general ideas and information:

  • BT's Home HubAssuming the house already has broadband, the main desktop PC is probably already connected to the Internet using a broadband (ADSL) modem. To get a house wi-fi enabled, you'll need a wi-fi router that can connect to the Internet (Called a Wireless ADSL Router). New customers of BT Total Broadband may get one of these free - it's called the BT Home Hub. This connects to the phone line, and provides for a wired or wireless connection to computers. If you don't have a wireless ADSL router, you can buy one from PC World , or Amazon.

  • You will need to connect your ADSL router to your phone socket (for broadband), and then establish a connection between the router and the PC. Depending on what your PC has in the way of connectivity, this could be via a cable, or you could use wi-fi. If your PC isn't wi-fi enabled, you can buy a cheap USB dongle - again, these can be bought cheaply online from PC World, or Amazon. wi-fi Set-up can be a little tricky for newcomers to wi-fi, as you have to set a number of things including an SSID (network name), your network settings (IP address), and security (WEP). Instructions supplied are normally good enough to get you going, but for the first-timer, it may take some time to get this completed. If you have a BT Home Hub, we have some notes on how to set up wi-fi.

  • If the laptop or PDA have built-in wi-fi, then setup should be straightforward, otherwise you may need to get a connectivity card. As above, you could use a wi-fi USB dongle or a PCMCIA card - both of these are available from Argos, PC World or If you want to use your laptop for Internet connectivity outside the home, consider T-Mobile Mobile Broadband - they have a card that supports wi-fi, 3G and GPRS. More on our Mobile Broadband page.

  • Wi-fi USB adaptorIf you want to make an existing PC work with a wireless network, the cheapest way is to get hold of a wireless USB adapter (pictured). This plugs into a spare USB port on your PC, and allows the PC to connect to a wireless router (such as the BT Home Hub). If you're looking for a USB wi-fi dongle, try:

    • - Great for low-priced network accessories.
    • PC World - Take a look in "Upgrades", "Network" to see what's on offer

Your questions?

Q. Is wi-fi safe?

Well, wi-fi signals are transmitted in the 2.4GHz range. In Europe, the maximum permitted radiated output power of a wi-fi device is 0.1 Watt (20 dBm). A wi-fi device had a maximum range of just 90 metres. Compare this with a GSM mobile phone which can have a peak power output of up to 2 watts when transmitting to a base station often some miles away. Mobile phones can output around twenty times the power of a wi-fi router, and you hold those close to your head. Seems that radiation from wi-fi is much lower than the dose you get from being close to a mobile phone or a base station.

If you're interested in reading more, try Is wi-fi bad for humans? which gives an example of one year being in a room with wi-fi is equal to 20 minutes on a mobile phone

Q. What about wi-fi security?

A. It's generally acknowledged that WPA is a better form of wireless security than WEP. WPA stands for Wireless Protected Access, and there are a couple of variants. In the home environment, you may find WPA-PSK, which uses a different kind of security as the home environment doesn't have a corporate server to exchange security keys with. WPA2 is the current version, and is compliant with a new security standard (802.11i) and began rolling out in 2006.

Q. I'm not getting a signal from my wi-fi router. How can I increase the range?

Wifi extenderwi-fi signals have a limited range, and walls, doors, radiators, etc can all reduce the range of the signal. You can try repositioning your router away from obstructions especially metal. Moving your router closer to the centre of a house increases the chance of home-wide coverage. You can also try repositioning your router's aerial(s), and changing the height-from-ground. Just repositioning a few feet can sometimes make all the difference.

If you still get no joy, consider a wi-fi extender. At the time of writing, there are two at Maplin, the Network Range extender - these can be used to boost your wireless network coverage. These can be placed around your home or office to fill in dead spots or to extend range. You can also try for wireless network extenders.


Q. Alternatives to wi-fi?

HomePlugIf, for some reason, you don't want to use wi-fi to connect equipment to your Broadband router, you could run Ethernet cabling from your Broadband router to equipment elsewhere in your home, but cabling isn't always a particularly neat option. There is another option - The HomePlug (also known as a Powerline Adapter). These allow you to feed computer data around your home using your existing mains wiring. Plug in a HomePlug to a power socket near your router, and plug an RJ45 data lead into the HomePlug. From elsewhere in the house, plug in another unit, for access to the 'Net over the mains wiring. For more on these, see our Powerline Adapter page.
You can get HomePlugs, such as the MicroLink dLAN Starter Kit (pictured here) from Maplin and


Got a question on wi-fi that we can answer in the next show? Call 020 8133 4567 or send us a message


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