When wireless comms took off, a new era of mobility was born. But compared with hard-wired LAN technologies, security, speed and scalability remain major challenges.
Thanks to their minimal cabling requirements, Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs) offer users and network administrators tremendous flexibility in terms of installation, user numbers and device mobility.
WLANs make it easier and faster for more users to connect to the network, and make connectivity a possibility in areas that cables can't reach.
What is Wireless LAN?
Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs) use radio frequency technology to transmit and receive data between end points. In contrast, Ethernet technology requires a physical connection - like the cable you plug into your laptop to access the corporate network.
In a typical WLAN configuration, an Access Point (AP) connects to the wired network from a fixed location using a standard Ethernet cable. The AP transmits data between the wireless and the wired network infrastructure. A single AP can support hundreds of mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops, gaming consoles, etc.) and has a range of around 300 feet (100 meters).
Because RF-based wireless networking technology (Wi-Fi) is not restricted by line-of-sight issues, wireless devices do not need to be located in the same room. Multiple radio carriers can co-exist without interference, as long as the radio waves are transmitted on different radio frequencies or channels. WLANs can be configured to operate at a specific radio frequency, while rejecting the radio signals on different frequencies - like microwaves, DECT phones and Bluetooth.
WLAN standardization, frequencies and speeds
The Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) developed the first specification for WLAN technology (called 802.11) in 1997. Subsequent WLAN standards have evolved across multiple frequencies with variations from the original 802.11b through to 802.11n and the latest 802.11ac. The term Wi-Fi is controlled by the Wi-Fi Alliance, a consortium that promotes 802.11 products and ensures interoperability among them. If an 802.11 product is certified by them, it earns the Wi-Fi label.
While it's markedly slower than wired LANs at average speeds of 11 Mbps, WLAN technology is getting ever faster, with 802.11ac reaching up to 2.5 Gigabits per second, with a theoretical max speed of 7 Gbps: exciting news for impatient Wi-Fi users everywhere.
The security problem for WLAN networks
In the past, WLAN security has been challenging to say the least. Wireless traffic is easily recorded, so eavesdroppers can gather your company data: logins, passwords, network addresses... Intruders can steal your bandwidth or masquerade as you, with dire legal consequences. WLAN security protocols include Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and the newer Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), which is back-compatible and features improved data encryption, integrity checking and user authentication.