Securing your wireless network

WLAN standards

The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) has developed official standards to enable wireless local area network (WLAN) devices to work together, regardless of which manufacturer made them.

These standards were driven by two factors:

  • speed - getting data transmitted faster between PCs and access points
  • security - making sure that the wireless capability is not abused

You need to be aware of both factors when choosing WLAN equipment.

IEEE 802.11 standards

Although a number of wireless LAN standards exist, many devices use 802.11b standard. It supports operation up to 100 metres away in unobstructed areas, but it has limited security capability, particularly in older devices.

802.11a standard is uncommon in standard office systems and incompatible with any of the other standards.

If you are setting up your first WLAN, or upgrading an existing system, you should buy equipment that incorporates 802.11g standard. It offers greater speed and security and is available in most new equipment.

Using 802.11b and 802.11g devices together is possible, but if you do, you may find that your 802.11g equipment is less effective. Choose devices that the Wi-Fi Alliance has tested and certified. This guarantees that they meet industry requirements and can work together.

Emerging WLAN standards

If you're in the market for new WLAN equipment, it may be worth looking at the emerging IEEE wireless standards to make sure you don’t buy a wireless technology that quickly becomes obsolete.

Most recent standards are:

  • IEEE 802.11i - an amendment to the original IEEE 802.11 standard that specifies security mechanisms for wireless networks.
  • IEEE 802.11n - an amendment to the previous IEEE 802.11-2007 standard to improve wireless network throughput. 802.11n will offer the fastest maximum speed and best signal range, and be more resistant to signal interference from outside sources.
  • IEEE 11ac - a newer standard that can potentially offer even faster throughput.

Find IEEE published standards.

Choosing WLAN standards

A common strategy for many businesses is to set up 802.11g client devices - the local equipment - while gradually moving to 802.11n or 802.11ac as part of new equipment purchases. The 802.11n or 802.11ac equipment will be backward compatible with 802.11g.

All these standards are for devices that share the available speed. If you have only one laptop in an area serviced by an access point, it will get all the speed depending upon distance from the access point and interference or signal reflections. If you have more devices using the network, the performance may be reduced depending on the simultaneous usage. Read more about access points and other WLAN components.