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Thursday, December 30, 2004  

Setting up wireless

I have by now built up experience of configuring wireless networks, and configuring end user laptops for use with wireless LAN (Wi-Fi) systems. There are some horrendous pitfalls, and I have found that some users report that it is easy, while others have great difficulty. Problems can arise even for very experienced users who do installations almost every day. I believe that most problems will affect Windows users, though Apple Mac users will not always be immune from problems.

The most basic installation is one which allows an end user to connect to the internet. Using a wireless router, often an ADSL modem/router device this should be the simplest form of connection. Possible areas of difficulty are:

  • Failing to configure a network card correctly
  • Entering the network name incorrectly
  • Entering an encryption key incorrectly
  • Trying to access a network with too weak a signal
  • Trying to access a network which requires MAC address authentication
Frustrating as most of these are, they are generally easy to fix, but the problem for the end user is that he/she does not usually know this.

There are some other big problems - some mentioned below - see big dial up user problem and connecting desk top machines in weak/no signal areas.

Most users will probably find it easier to use the software which comes with their network card, rather than to use anything provided within Windows. This particularly applies to users who have not yet installed the SP2 updates for Win XP, but even XP users with the SP2 update may have difficulty. My first piece of advice is to try the software which comes with your device first - it'll probably make things simpler. I'm sorry - I've almost forgotten users who use older systems, such as Win NT, Win 98 or even Win 95. Things are just really tough for you guys. If you can, update to Win NT as soon as possible. The Pro version is definitely better, even if it does give Microsoft more revenue.

If you do this step correctly you should be able to pick up the network you are trying to connect to. Some network operators hide the SSID (identification name) of their network, which makes this harder. If you are in control of the network, then it may be useful to turn on the SSID visibility while adding a new computer to the network, as this will allow you to check that the network is visible.

It is obviously important to make sure that the network you are connecting to is the right one, and that the name is entered correctly. Often you don't actually have to enter the name if you can connect to the network, but if the SSID is hidden then you will have to enter the name explicitly.

For private networks operators may use an encryption key. Although WEP keys are known to provide only weak security, it is better than nothing, so it is important to use the correct key if WEP encryption is used. Personally I would recommend the very tedious process of using a long key (128) and typing the whole thing in using hexadecimal notation. This usually requires typing in a 26 character identifier which contains the letters and digits A-F, 0-9, Any randomly generated sequence of 26 characters of this form will do - you don't have to worry about what they "mean" - they're just numbers as far as the network is concerned. Thus

abac 1249 97f1 02d5 853a dafe 89

will be a possible sequence - run them all together to form


Some cards provide a password feature which can generate these long keys, but my view is that these are unreliable. If you can make it work for you then fine, but the chances are that you'll save time by doing things the hard way and typing in the long string. It's very easy to make a mistake, so group the characters in (say) blocks of four as above, and type very carefully. Some setups require an additional character, such as a preceding dollar ($) sign to indicate that the key is in hexadecimal.

Make sure that you write your password down and keep it secure. Avoid keeping this information on your computer if possible, though you may be able to recover it later from the router if you are the system adminstrator.

Most networks which are working will provide a good signal over a reasonable area, but it is possible to have weak signals in some locations. If possible try to connect first when close to the base station. It is surprising how often users do not know where the base station is, and often in public places the so-called "hot spot" is not really that close to the transmitter. There may be reasons for this which don't need spelling out here. If you can find out where the base station is, then it is a good idea to move close to it to check the connections. Obviously this is only realistic with portable equipment, such as PDAs and laptops, so if you are trying to connect a desk top PC you will probably have to try to connect in the intended usage location. You may be lucky, and it may work OK, but if not then try to borrow a laptop or PDA to check that. If the signal is really weak there will be no way that you can connect directly, so no amount of reconfiguring will get round that. I'll come back to this later.

The most likely situation is that you will configure the network card to run correctly, and that the signal will be adequate.

Some network operators also block access to computers which are not designated as belonging to their network. This is a useful precaution for home users. However it is easy to forget this, and this can make it difficult when adding a new user device. If you are the operator then turn off this feature while adding the new device in, and then turn it back on once the router has captured the MAC address of the new device. Alternatively, if you are really worried about security issues, find out the MAC address of the network card, and type it in explicitly to the router. This is unlikely to be a problem with public networks, as the operators will want to be able to provide services to users with unknown devices. They will use other methods to ensure that their networks are protected from rogue users, though they will probably not provide much in the way of protection for the end users against other users.

OK - so most of you will have got this far without problems, but some will still not be able to use the network you have set up. I'll explain about this in the next section.

Big dial up user problem
You may have set up your card correctly, set the SSID and WEP key, and ensured that you have access to the network, and be close enough to the base station. Your network card software is indicating a good signal, so you open up a web browser and hope to see a web page. Instead you see that you get a page unavailable message. The first thing to try is restarting your machine, or closing it down and then starting it up again. This may fix the problem, as sometimes full reconfiguration only takes place after restart. However there is a problem with Windows which many users do not know about, and which will still prevent many users from accessing the new network.

It is possible that even after doing this your browser will not pick up the wireless network, and your browser will appear to be offline. If you try to force the browser online, then you will see a dial-up connection window. This will not contain the name of your wireless network, but rather a list of other dial-up connections.

Alternatively you may try to set up a connection via the Start menu. There may be an option to see your available connections, and you may find that there are several dial-up connections, plus your new wireless network available. Selecting the wireless network will probably still not work!

Solution and possible explanation
What is the solution to the problem outlined above? One which seems to work reliably appears to be drastic, but should do the trick. First, for each dial up network you have already set up on your machine, open it up, and write down all the important details. This will probably include:

  • ISP name
  • telephone number
  • user name
  • password
The telephone number and user name should be available in the dialogue box, and you should know the password, or have it written down somewhere. If you've lost your password (because you've been relying on Windows to remember it for you) then it might be good idea to use your dial-up connection to contact your ISP and get them to send it to you, or to get them to reconfigure your password before going on to the next step. If the only form of connection you have which works is dial-up, do that before anything else.

You do not actually have to make a connection to each ISP in order to extract the information you need to store - just open up the connection dialogue and write down the details, then Cancel the connection.

Once you have captured the information needed for each dial-up connection you are ready for the drastic step.

Open up the Control Panel - you can find this from the Start menu. It is probably easier in the older Classic view. Then open up the Network Connections control panel, and you should see your wireless connection - hopefully working apparently (!!), and you will also see your older dial-up connections. For each of the dial-up connections use a right click to select, and then Delete - YES - Delete it. Do this until you have no more dial-up connections left. Most probably there'll only be one connection left at this stage - the wireless network. When you use your browser next it'll only have one place to go, so it'll use that. You may have to restart the machine in order to do that.

If I'm right, and I hope I will be in most cases, you should soon be able to get your wireless network working.

Using the wireless network

Once you have got the wireless network working and are able to browse web pages most of the work has been done. For most users this is all they need. You may want to test the coverage, for example if you are using a laptop to check out the coverage for a connection to a desktop machine which was mentioned earlier. Checking out coverage is most easily done by connecting to a streaming video or audio service, such as a BBC radio or TV news channel, and then walking away from the base station. If you can walk all the way to the proposed site of your desktop installation without losing the streaming service then coverage should be sufficient. If you can't then that will at least confirm that there is a connectivity problem due to coverage, and you may be able to use other methods to fix that - see below.

With luck you will now be able to do most of what you want with the wireless network. However, you may still need to fix your dial-up connections - since you may have by now deleted them all in order to get wireless connectivity working.

Reinstating the dial-ups
You may need to reinstate the dial-up connections which you have perhaps deleted in order to get wireless working.

To do this go to Control Panel -> Network Connections, and for each dial-up account create a new connection. Use the information which you saved when you deleted each dial-up connection earlier. You will probably go through the panels with answers as follows:
  • Network Connection Type: Connect to the Internet
  • Getting Ready: Set up my connection manually
  • Internet Connection: Connect using a dial-up modem
  • Connection Name: Type the name of your ISP in the following box
  • Phone Number to Dial: Type the phone number below
  • Internet Account Information
As you create each new dial-up connection on the last panel in this sequence you may notice a box which suggests that you should "Use this account name and password when anyone connects to the Internet from this computer." You should untick/uncheck this box, as if you leave it you will probably not be able to use the wireless network again - the connection problems will return. You should also see a box "Make this the default Internet connection." Decide whether this really is going to be your default connection, and tick/check appropriately. If in doubt it is probably best to untick/uncheck this, as the defaults can be set up later.

The reason the problems arise is because when the original ISP dial-up accounts were set up, the most sensible thing was for all the connections to go through that account. A few years down the line, and this is no longer the case. There may be other ways of fixing this problem, but this is one which I've found that works.

Good luck with that!

I have one more thing to deal with, for those who may be trying to connect a desk top machine.

Connecting desk top machines in weak/no signal areas
I've indicated that there may be some problems with desk tops in weak signal areas. If you are running your own network there are several solutions. One is to move the base station to provide better coverage. With an ADSL modem/router this will normally be close to a telephone point, and you may also want this to be linked to a another PC which is used for controlling/administering the modem/router. You may not be able to move the base station far and still satisfy these constraints. You can try using a different modem/router, but this is an expensive solution, and will very probably not fix the problem. You can extend the ethernet cable to your modem/router to allow it to be resited, but you won't want to extend it far because that introduces a cabling problem which perhaps you were hoping to avoid.

If you don't mind running the whole of your network wirelessly, and you have several telephone points, then you can move the modem/router device to a telephone point which is closer to the target area. This may now require a new wireless connection to be set up to a machine which was previously connected using cables. This is probably not a very good solution, as it weakens security, and downgrades the connection speed for any machines which are connected via cables. It is however feasible to do this, and some modem/routers can be managed quite effectively this way. Moving the modem/router to an upstairs location may improve coverage considerably. Although this solution is not very good - it may be good enough for many users.

The solution I came up with when I had this problem was to use an external wireless adapter linked by a USB cable to the target desk top machine. I noted that the signal strength was adequate outside the room I wanted to connect to, but useless inside it. Putting the wireless adapter unit outside the room with a long USB cable has provided a reliable solution. I was warned that using long USB cables might cause a problem, but in my case I can say that it has been very satisfactory.

I almost forgot the Apple Mac/iMac/iBook/Powerbook users I mentioned earlier ....

Apple users

Many modern Apple machines come wireless ready. For laptops there may be a slight tendency to lose connections in public areas. Sometimes they re-connect automatically, but this doesn't always happen. Generally one of several brute force approaches may work:

  • Turn off the Airport, then turn it back on
  • As above, but open a new Internet Connect Window, and reconnect to the chosen network
  • As above, but try to connect to a different network first, then reconnect to the desired network
  • Make sure that the WEP key is correct if needed (but it's usually not for public networks)
  • If you are using a laptop in a public area, move around to find a better signal
  • Reboot your machine
  • Try again later! (the network may be down, or overloaded ...)
I haven't found a consistent way of doing this, but I know that the problems I've experienced also affect other users of similar machines. It can be frustrating sitting next to someone (e.g a PC user) who's got a system working, and being unable to connect to the same network that they're on, but it happens. It can also happen that several people will not be able to connect to a network - for example in a hotel lobby. It may take a long while before they talk to each other to see if it's a network problem!

I hope that these notes will help some of you with wireless connections and you won't all have to suffer the pain which I have been through during the last couple of years. I also hope that things will continue to get better as technology and management of infrastructure improve.

posted by David | 7:29 am
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