Getting ready for broadband
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When you get broadband, you MUST have a hardware router as your first line of defense against hackers.
You can find some real deals on wired only routers (<$20 net), but wireless is the coming thing. For a home user I recommend getting a wireless router, even if you don't have any wireless computers now. Wireless routers generally also have connections for 4 wired computers as well as the radio and can be had for <$50 net with careful shopping.
Wireless comes in 3 standards (as of 2004) designated as IEEE 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g. 802.11a wireless was a little-used standard with a relatively short range and can be immediately discarded from consideration. The other two may be promoted as "B", "G", or merely "Wi-Fi". "G" is the newest standard and is backwardly compatible with "B" so any "B" equipment will work on a "G" network and vice versa -- at the slower "B" capabilities.
"B" and "G" both have a nominal range of 100 m, depending on the walls and interference it encounters. "B" and compatible "G" work in the 2.4 GHz radio band that is shared with many other devices such as cordless phones. "B" has a nominal communications rate of 11 Mbs while "G" can theoretically attain up to 54 Mbs. Given the network overhead and other considerations, good-conditions data transfer would typically be half the ratings and may fall back to as slow as a modem in bad conditions. In addition, the available bandwidth is shared by all the wireless users using that radio channel (multiple channels can be configured for large, heavy-use areas). By comparison, a wired network has a data transfer rate of 100 Mbs for each user.
Be aware that some manufacturers describe their routers as "Super", "X-tra" or some other exclamatory term and quote rates of 22 or 108 Mbs. These systems operate outside the IEEE standards and will achieve these speeds only with properly configured equipment from the same manufacturer. They function in the "B" or "G" standards perfectly well, but you should not pay a higher price for the superlative.
You must, however, put the speed ratings in proper context. Most home users want wireless networking so they can surf the web from the back yard or so they don't have to wire their house. Currently broadband internet tops out at about 3 Mbs so sharing an 11 Mbs pipe won't degrade internet usage. Similarly, very few consumer printers accept data much faster than "B" wireless can feed it. You might notice a reduced speed as opposed to a "G" or wired network only while transferring your vacation pictures from your laptop or while watching a movie that's stored on another computer.
Even if you currently intend to connect only a single wired computer to your broadband internet, go ahead and buy a wireless router. Get your best deal on a "G" router unless you see an exceptional buy on a "B" router. If cash is really tight; there's nothing wrong with getting a "B", or even a wired-only router.
Whatever you buy, be sure it is described as a DSL/Cable router and also has connections for at least 4 wired computers. The primary SOHO manufacturers are D-Link, Netgear, and Linksys. You can't go wrong with any of these brands.
The router goes between the modem you got from your DSL or Cable provider and your computer. If you bought a professional installation from your provider, they will probably want to install software on your "single" computer and will not configure or support your router. Resist installing ISP software on your computer if at all possible. The installer should be able to connect your computer directly to their modem and prove you're on the internet without installing any software. After he leaves, unplug the connection he made and put the router in between, using a wired connection to configure the router. The jack labeled WAN connects to the modem and your computer plugs into any one of the numbered jacks.
You may need to configure the router before you can connect to the internet, or it may make the connection automatically. Turn everything off and power up in sequence your modem, the router, and your computer allowing 60 seconds between each to let the previous device completely boot (it's finished when the lights settle down to a consistent pattern). Test to see if you're on the internet. If not, you will need to configure the router. If you know a networking professional you can call on, you may want to do so. Just because the "kid next door" got their network up doesn't mean he'll use best practices to protect your data. Although each brand is different in detail, the general procedures are similar. You will need the quick-start documentation that came with the router.
Access the router by opening a browser window and entering the router's address. This would typically be something like http://192.168.x.1 where "x" is a brand-specific number in the documentation. If this does not bring you to the router's logon/password screen, you will need to perform some diagnostics. If you do get a web page, logon to the router using the ID/password in the documentation. You can't mess anything up because you can always reset the router to factory specs. Usually this involves pressing a recessed button while it's booting. Find this procedure in the documentation and write it on a piece of tape attached to the router along with the default logon ID/password and the http address above. You may wish you had this info next year.
Your first logon to the router usually starts a wizard that will take you through the basics of getting connected. If you have cable internet, there's not much to do. A DSL connection may require that you enter logon/password credentials from your ISP into the router. More rarely, you may have to enter some advanced settings which your provider should have left you.
New routers provide decent internet security by default. Unless you have special needs, about all you need to do to take advantage of their benefits is change the username and password. Be sure you add this information to the notes you attached to the box.
On the wireless side, you will need to implement all the security your router and computer mutually support. Most SOHO wireless routers support primarily WEP security which is notoriously weak. (For a technical discussion on wireless security in general, see the articles at http://www.nwfusion.com/reviews/2004/1004wirelesswep.html.) But the old story is "don't decide to do nothing just because the first response is barely effective." Go ahead and implement WEP on your router. It may take some fiddling to get everything synchronized between the router and your computer, but you only have to configure it once.
Maybe the only person you're locking out is grandpa next door, but you might as well not confuse him with seeing your network. Once you've latched the screen door with WEP, add a little more security by implementing a password-protected screensaver on your computer.
Of course, with broadband, it's even more important you keep your antivirus, antispyware, personal firewall, and Windows Updates up-to-date. The router protects you from hackers coming in the front door of the internet, but the firewall hopefully protects you from evil programs that get installed on your computer. These protections need to be on every computer on your network.
Another vital security protection involves the finger on the mouse. Set your browser to medium to high security. Always read the alerts that come when you are asked to install a program over the internet. Don't check "Always accept" when presented with a site certificate. Don't surf to questionable sites and if you stumble onto one, immediately reboot your computer to shut them out. Learn to recognize and don't even read spam and phishing emails. Be very leery of anyone who offers you a "convenient clickable link" in an email to a page that gives them personal information -- always independently verify a telephone number or link and type it yourself before you open up.
Windows XP Service Pack 2 update
Highly rated internet security utilities:
Spybot Search & Destroy spyware eliminator
Ad-Aware spyware eliminator
Zone Alarm personal firewall
Shields-Up from Gibson Research online security tests
Now that you've got broadband, you can add full-featured telephone service.
Bill Barnes is a freelance small business system administrator.
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Last updated Saturday, November 06, 2004 02:50 PM