The basics of wireless networking

Confused by the alphabet soup of wireless-networking technologies? We'll tell you what you need to know.

Currently there are three wireless-networking standards competing for your airtime. Wi-Fi (802.11b) is the corporate choice and has a suitably wide range for use in big office spaces. 802.11a offers bigger bandwidth and fewer interference problems but a shorter range. Bluetooth is meant for short-range, temporary networking in conference rooms, schools or homes. In addition to the detailed rundowns below, check out our side-by-side comparison of these different technologies with traditional, wired Ethernet.

Networking solutions

  Pros Cons Approximate range Max. / typical data speeds

Ethernet inexpensive; included on most new PCs; hundreds of hardware makers requires cabling; larger networks need hubs and switches 91m (300 feet) per segment 100 / 60Mbps (for 100Mbps network)
Wi-Fi (802.11b) relatively inexpensive; dozens of manufacturers; WECA certification; radios integrated on new notebooks data speeds inadequate for high-end multimedia; 3 channels 30m (100 feet) 11 / 5.5Mbps
Wi-Fi5 (802.11a) high bandwidth for multiple users or multimedia distribution; 8 channels expensive; small number of manufacturers 15m (50 feet) 54 / 22Mbps
Bluetooth very cheap for integrated radio on handheld or cellphone; widespread installation; low power low data throughput; short range; lack of compatibility 6-15m (20-50 feet) 723 / 300Kbps