Lesson 2: Configuring Wireless Networking
In recent years, the thought of using a computer without access to the Internet has become hard to imagine for many consumers. Users rely on the ability to access information stored on their own networks or on computers located across the world quickly and easily. Although it is common to find network jacks in office locations, they are less likely to be found in home environments and some types of businesses. This makes the act of connecting to the Internet difficult and inconvenient. Fortunately, there’s a better way.
In Lesson 1, you looked at details related to network protocols with a focus on managing wired network connections. The focus of this lesson is on examining the details of working with the convenience of wireless networks. For the most part, all of the information you learned in Lesson 1 applies equally to wired and wireless networks.
Although there are numerous benefits of using wireless technology, there are also some additional security and configuration-related concerns. As a Consumer Support Technician, you’ll often be responsible for assisting users with configuring their wireless network adapters for use with Windows Vista. In this lesson, you’ll learn about the basics of working with wireless networks, along with the details related to ensuring that these networks remain secure.
After this lesson, you will be able to:
- Describe potential security issues with using wireless network connections.
- Identify commonly used wireless network protocols.
- Describe the features and benefits of network security protocols such as WEP and WPA.
- Use the Network And Sharing Center to create and manage wireless network connections.
- Troubleshoot issues with wireless network connections.
Estimated lesson time: 45 minutes
Working with Wireless Networks
The benefits of using wireless networks are probably apparent to most end users and technical professionals. Not having to find and connect a network cable to a jack is a huge benefit in environments ranging from homes to public locations such as airports and restaurants. There are, however, several potential drawbacks to using wireless connections instead of wired ones.
First, there’s the issue of physical security. With wired connections, it’s often easy to determine who is connected to the network and to restrict access to a specific building. Due the nature of wireless communications, on the other hand, it is possible for users to connect to a network without having physical access to a building. Simply by enabling their wireless network adapters, it is possible to view network activity originating from other computers. The potential for intercepting data is high.
Additionally, there are technical issues such as finding the correct wireless network (especially in environments where multiple networks exist) and providing the proper security credentials to access it. Finally, there are numerous available standards and protocols related to wireless networks. This can make the process of selecting and configuring various devices complicated. Although standards are designed to provide for compatibility, there is still some potential for connection problems.
Understanding Typical Wireless Configurations
In most home and small-business environments, there are several required components that are necessary to create and use a wireless network. The first requirement is for a computer to have a wireless network adapter. Like a physical network adapter, a wireless adapter can be built into a computer (which is most common with portable devices such as notebook computers), or it can be added as a peripheral. Common examples of wireless network adapter types include universal serial bus (USB) and PC card–based devices. Desktop computer expansion cards are also available (for more information on installing new hardware devices, see Chapter 11, “Managing and Troubleshooting Devices.”
The network adapter provides the computer-side connection to the wireless network. Most commonly, the network itself is created by using a wireless router or access point. These devices can provide the ability to connect multiple computers through wireless connections. They usually include standard wired connection ports for supported standard LAN connections and for connecting to the Internet.
Other types of wireless networking hardware products are also available. For example, because the range of wireless devices is limited based on the strength of the signal, you can use network devices called repeaters to relay the signal to more distant locations.
Understanding Wireless Network Protocols
Regardless of the types of devices that are used, they generally must support the same wireless networking standards. The most commonly used wireless standards include 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11n. Each of these protocols differs in terms of the frequencies that are used, the data rate (speed), and the range. Table 9-1 provides a comparison of these values.
Table 9-1 Summary of 802.11 Networking Standards
In general, newer standards offer improved performance and improved range. Because the process of upgrading to newer standards often requires the replacement of numerous routers and network adapters, many wireless networking products support multiple protocols.
Understanding Wireless Security Options
As mentioned earlier, one of the security-related issues of transmitting information over a wireless connection is the risk of data interception by third parties. For example, if you are transmitting a document through e-mail while using a wireless connection in an airport, another wireless user might be able to collect this data without your knowledge. Also, in a home environment, the range of a wireless router or access point might make it possible for neighbors to connect to your network and access resources such as home computers or your Internet connection.
To address these concerns, you can protect data by using encryption technologies. The purpose of encryption is to scramble data into a format that is decipherable by only the intended recipient of the communication. Even if data is intercepted, it will be unusable by anyone who does not know the encryption key. There are several different methods by which you can implement encryption. The most common method is by using a shared secret, a password, or other information that is known only to authorized users of the network. In this section, you’ll look at different ways in which you can help increase security.
Using Wired Equivalent Privacy
The oldest common wireless security method is known as the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) standard. As its name implies, the goal of this security mechanism is to allow only authorized users to connect to a wireless network. Home and small-business users typically create a WEP key when they initially configure their routers and network adapters. The length of the key affects the level of security. More characters in the key make the system more difficult to compromise from a security standpoint. Key lengths are typically measured in bits, with some common strengths being 128-bit and 256-bit.
Using WEP security is clearly better than using no encryption, but this security protocol does have well-known vulnerabilities. Specifically, it is possible for unauthorized users to determine mathematically the value of the WEP key simply by monitoring a sufficient amount of networking traffic. Programs are available for automatically performing this task, and it can often be accomplished very quickly. Longer WEP keys make the process more difficult, but eventually, a knowledgeable user can break through the encryption.
Another security challenge is related to sharing WEP keys with authorized users. Although the problem is not specific to WEP, users must have a method of securely communicating the key. In home and small business environments, this can often be done by verbally transmitting the key, but in larger organizations, it can be a significant problem. Overall, WEP provides additional security, but it does not completely address all potential vulnerabilities.
Using Wi-Fi Protected Access
The goal of the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) protocol is to provide for increased security over that of the WEP standard. WPA is generally seen as a replacement for the less secure WEP protocol, but WEP is still supported in operating systems such as Windows Vista for backward compatibility with devices that do not support it.
Like WEP, you generally configure WPA security on a wireless router or access point. To enable WPA, the network adapter and operating system must also support it. When creating a new connection, users are prompted to provide the appropriate WPA key (you’ll look at the specific steps later in this chapter).
Using Service Set Identifiers
When working with wired networks, it’s often easy to tell to which network you’re connecting. In a home or small-business environment, there is typically only one available network, and all of the connections enable computers to communicate (assuming that they have the proper permissions). In the world of wireless networking, it’s possible for several different wireless networks to be available for access from a given location. For example, in a typical home environment, it might be possible to connect to neighbors’ wireless networks.
The Service Set Identifier (SSID) is designed to assist users with finding and connecting to wireless networks that are available. The SSID is a name that is continually broadcast by a wireless access point device. The name of the wireless network (which you usually define when you initially configure an access point) is provided, along with details about whether the network requires security credentials. When a wireless network adapter is present in a computer, Windows Vista can automatically detect the available networks and identify them based on their SSID. Users can then choose to which network they want to connect (and, optionally, to provide security information).
Configuring Wireless Networks
In the past, end users have often found the process of connecting to wireless networks too complicated and unreliable. To address these issues, Windows Vista includes several different tools and methods for connecting to wireless networks. The goal is for these tools to remain consistent, regardless of the specific wireless protocols, security methods, and brands of network devices that are being used. In most cases, you can use the wireless network features to create a connection quickly, using minimal effort. In this section, you’ll learn how to connect to a wireless network and manage wireless network settings. The content of this section assumes that you are already familiar with creating and managing standard network connections as described in Lesson 1 of this chapter.
Connecting to a Wireless Network
Unlike wired network connections, the process of connecting to a wireless network does not require a physical action such as plugging in a cable. Instead, users must choose to which wireless network they would like to connect from those that are within range. When you have installed and configured a wireless network adapter on the computer, the Network And Sharing Center shows the connection in the display. If the adapter is not currently connected to a specific wireless network, you can click the Connect To A Network link. The resulting dialog box (shown in Figure 9-17) shows all of the available wireless network connections within range, along with their signal strength.
The details also show whether the network is security-enabled or unsecured. You can click Connect to connect to a particular wireless network. If security information is required for the network (and it has not yet been stored on the local computer), Windows Vista prompts you to provide the necessary details (see Figure 9-18). Optionally, it is possible to provide network configuration information that is stored on a USB drive (if available).
If the connection is successful, you have the option to save the network settings. This option stores the security settings on the local computer running Windows Vista so that you do not need to provide the security details again in the future. If you save these settings, you can enable the option to connect automatically to this network connection when the computer is within range. If you enable this option, the user does not need to access the Network And Sharing Center manually to connect to the network when it is available.
It is also possible to access wireless network settings by right-clicking the wireless network icon in the system tray (if it is available) and choosing the Connect or Disconnect option. The Connect option automatically displays the wireless network connection screen. This method is useful if multiple wireless networks are available, and you would like to change connections quickly.
Configuring Wireless Ad Hoc Network Connections
It’s most common in home and small-business environments to use a wireless router or access point for creating network connections. Often, these devices also provide access to other resources such as the Internet or computers that are located on other wired or wireless segments of the network. In some cases, however, it might be helpful for two or more computers to connect directly with each other to share files or perform sharing functions. Ad hoc wireless networks are designed to meet this need.
An ad hoc wireless network is connected directly between several different wireless-enabled computers without the use of a wireless access point. To create a new ad hoc wireless network, users can click Set Up A Connection Or Network in the Network And Sharing Center and choose the Set Up A Wireless Ad Hoc (Computer-To-Computer) Network option (see Figure 9-19).
As indicated in the dialog box, it is not possible for the same wireless adapter to connect simultaneously to a standard wireless network and an ad hoc wireless network. Figure 9-20 shows the options that are available when setting up the new network.
After you create the network connection, other users can connect to it as long as they are within range.
Viewing Wireless Network Connection Status Details
The speed of a wired connection is generally constant after a connection is made. With wireless connections, a variety of factors such as distance from the access point and the strength of the signal affect the performance of the connection. You can view the immediate status of the connection by clicking the appropriate View Status link in Network And Sharing Center. Figure 9-21 shows the details that are shown for a wireless connection.
The information that is unique to wireless connections includes the SSID, the speed of the connection, and the signal quality. Additionally, clicking Wireless Properties enables the user to set automatic connection and security-related settings for the connection (see Figure 9-22).
Managing Wireless Network Connections
For most portable computers, it’s common to work with wireless networks in several different environments. For example, a customer might use his or her laptop to connect to wireless networks at home, in a hotel, and at his or her office. Although the user could manually connect to each of these networks when they are in range, Windows Vista can simplify the process by storing the details of the connections on the local computer.
To manage settings for wireless networks, you can click Manage Wireless Connections in Network And Sharing Center. The management utility (shown in Figure 9-23) shows details about which wireless networks are currently configured on the local computer. The list shows the order of preference for wireless networks. Windows Vista tries to connect to networks that are listed higher in the list before attempting connections to the lower items. You can modify the preference order by selecting the item and using the Move Up or Move Down button.
You can remove existing network connections if you no longer want the computer to connect to the network automatically. You can also add new wireless networks, using the Add button. Figure 9-24 shows the available options. If the wireless network you want to add is currently within range and is broadcasting its SSID, the first option is easiest.
In cases in which the wireless network is not within range or the SSID is not being broadcast, you can use the Manually Create A Network Profile option. Figure 9-25 shows the details that you must provide.
Managing User Profile Types
In configurations through which multiple users regularly access the same computer, it might be helpful to control which users can connect to which networks. The Manage Wireless Networks dialog box provides the ability to configure the type of profile that Windows Vista uses for new wireless network connections. Figure 9-26 shows the available options.
The Use All-User Profiles Only (Recommended) option is preferred, which specifies that all users on the computer share the same set of wireless network connection settings. If this is not desired for security reasons, you can enable per-user profiles, using the second option. When Windows Vista creates per-user profiles, users can create new network connections for only their own user accounts.
Troubleshooting Wireless Connections
Wireless networking technology does not always work flawlessly, and users might encounter issues with lost connections or intermittent problems. The general troubleshooting steps presented in Lesson 1 apply equally to wireless networks. For example, Windows Vista includes the ability to diagnose and repair wireless connections automatically. If the computer is not using a valid IP address for the network, the operating system can automatically attempt to obtain a new address through DHCP.
In addition to standard protocol-level troubleshooting, common wireless problems are related to the strength of the wireless network connection. Earlier in this lesson, you saw how to view the details in the Properties dialog box of the network connection. A quicker way to determine signal strength is to hover the mouse pointer over the wireless networking icon in the system tray. The resulting display (shown in Figure 9-27) shows currently connected networks, along with the quality of the connection.
- Which wireless security protocol provides the greatest level of security?
- How would you connect to a wireless network that is not configured to broadcast its SSID?
Quick Check Answers
- The Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) protocol provides increased security over the previous standard, Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP).
- Wireless networks that are not broadcasting SSID information can be connected to manually by using the Manage Network Connections list in Network And Sharing Center.
Practice: Managing Wireless Network Settings
In this practice, you will set up a new wireless network connection on a computer running Windows Vista. The exercise assumes that you currently have an active and functioning wireless network connection and that you have the appropriate information (including any security keys) required to connect to the network.
Practice: Connect to a Wireless Network
In this practice, you disconnect from your current wireless network and then walk through the steps of adding the wireless network connection to the computer.
- Right-click the icon for the current wireless network connection and click Network And Sharing Center.
- In the Network And Sharing Center, click View Status to view information about the connection. Make a note of the SSID that the current connection is using, and then click Close to return to the Network And Sharing Center.
- Click Disconnect next to the wireless network connection.
- Next, click Manage Wireless Networks in the Network And Sharing Center. If the SSID that you recorded in step 2 is present in the list, right-click it and select Remove Network. Click OK to confirm the removal.
This prevents Windows Vista from automatically connecting to the network when it is available.
- Close the Manage Wireless Networks dialog box.
- To create a connection to the wireless network, click Connect To A Network in the Network And Sharing Center.
- Select the name of the SSID that you recorded in step 2, and then click Connect. Windows Vista attempts to connect to the network.
- If prompted for security information for the connection, type in the security key or pass-phrase for the wireless network, and then click Connect.
- If you would like Windows Vista to connect automatically to this wireless network connection in the future, select both check boxes in the final step of the connection process. If not, you can clear the Start This Connection Automatically and Save This Network check boxes. Click Close to return to Network And Sharing Center.
- Open Internet Explorer and browse to a Web site to verify that the connection is working properly.
- When finished, close Internet Explorer and close Network And Sharing Center.
- Wireless network connections typically involve the use of a wireless network adapter and a wireless router or access point.
- There are various wireless networking protocols available, each with a different combination of range and performance.
- The primary security protocols for wireless networks are Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and the more secure Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA).
- Ad hoc wireless networks are created between computers without requiring a wireless router or access point.
- Wireless networks can be created and managed using the Network And Sharing Center.
- Wireless network connection profiles can be created for all users or on a per-user profile basis.
You can use the following questions to test your knowledge of the information in Lesson 2. The questions are also available on the companion CD if you prefer to review them in electronic form.
- You are a Consumer Support Technician assisting a customer with configuring a wireless network. Specifically, the wireless network settings are working properly in her home environment. However, when she takes her notebook computer to her office, Windows Vista automatically connects to the incorrect wireless network. How can she resolve this problem?
A. Reinstall the drivers for the wireless network adapter.
B. Enable the wireless network adapter.
C. Change the preferred network connection order, using the network map in the Network And Sharing Center.
D. Configure the network connection order, using the Manage Wireless Networks option in the Network And Sharing Center.
- Which of the following methods enable you to view the current signal strength for a wireless network connection? (Choose all that apply.)
A. View the status of a wireless network in the Network And Sharing Center.
B. Generate a network map in the Network And Sharing Center.
C. Click Set Up A Connection in the Network And Sharing Center.
D. Click the system tray icon for the wireless network connection.
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