The Wall Street Journal wrote an article last month about wireless networks, expressing a sentiment many of you have probably felt – namely, they’re a pain in the neck. It doesn’t help that the vocabulary has gotten muddled. There are now four basic types of networks covered by the term “wireless”:

  • 802.11g Wi-Fi, wireless networks covering small areas. This is what most people understand by the term “wireless”; this is what fills the shelves for consumers at CompUSA and Best Buy.
  • 802.11n Wi-Fi, the “next generation” of local wireless technology, promising faster speeds and coverage of larger areas. Since this standard has not been finalized and approved, the shelves are filling up with “pre-N” technology – routers and PC adapters from one manufacturer that might not work with another manufacturer’s “pre-N” devices, and that might not work with devices built after the final 802.11n specs are approved.
  • Wi-Max, ground-based wireless networks covering large areas – the technology proposed to cover the entire city of San Francisco by Earthlink and Google, for example. It’s great technology and lots of cities are discussing it, but so far projects have been remarkably slow to come to fruition. It doesn’t help that the telecommunications companies hate the idea and are frantically trying to pass local and state laws prohibiting such projects, as well as trying to block legislation that would overturn those local laws. (Yesterday the Google/Earthlink project in San Francisco was put on hold yet again, amid signs that the whole idea might collapse.)
  • Wireless broadband from cell carriers – Verizon, Sprint, AT&T – covering large areas and using existing cell phone towers.

Wi-Fi was supposed to simplify things but instead too often turns into a blur of unstable and dropped connections, poorly-understood security settings, lack of management tools for network administrators, frequent interference, and frustratingly small coverage areas.

There are signs of progress and equipment is appearing that promises to alleviate some of the headaches. Ruckus Wireless has drawn some attention recently for its architecture of 802.11g equipment that reportedly extends range and speeds and – more importantly – makes connections more stable. It is telling that the Ruckus CEO delivers this crucial point in her sales pitch: “We don’t aim for the best average throughput… we make the worst case suck less.”

In a few years, perhaps these issues will be behind us and wireless technology will be mature and stable. For home users and small businesses considering their networking options today, though, I still have the same advice: people relying on wireless networks call me for help; people with wires don’t.

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