Setting Up a Home Wi-Fi Network for Under $200

If you have yet to set up a Wi-Fi network in your home, and you have multiple computers and printers around the house, there are few tech upgrades you can do that will give you more satisfaction. Putting one in is a good project for this weekend. I often sit and write on my back porch with a ThinkPad X40 notebook that can still stream Web video just fine when I’m 100 feet from the house. The really good news is that the Wi-Fi networking process is now nearly entirely automated by the CDs that come with wireless routers and access points, and, unless you live in a palatial mansion, you can easily put your Wi-Fi network in for under $200.

In this post, I’ll cover some of the primary tips to keep in mind as you go Wi-Fi at home. This post will assume that you do have broadband at home, and you have Wi-Fi-ready technology in the devices you want on the network (Wi-Fi adapters and cards you plug in typically cost $50 to $100). Also, I’m sure some readers already have home Wi-Fi networks, so it would be great to hear their tips in the comments.

Your Router and Your Access Points. The first thing to understand about a Wi-Fi network is that it’s radio technology. You’re essentially networking a radio signal. That means that all the funky things radio signals do can come into play—like signal degrading when there are physical obstructions. Your first steps are to get a good Wi-Fi router and at least one access point.

I like Linksys and D-Link as brands for your router and access points. At Best Buy’s site, I found a Linksys SpeedBooster 802.11g router for $69.99. There was also a Linksys Wireless N router there for $99.99. The 802.11n proposed Wi-Fi standard is only a draft at this point, so if you buy wireless “N” products you may find them incompatible with the products that come out when the standard is ratified. The draft N products are faster, though. Anyway, let’s assume you go with the $69.99 802.11g router–going with the “G” standard. Here’s a photo of the router:

Next, start by buying one access point to go with your router, and you can add more access points later, if your house is big enough that you need them. Your access point should be the same brand as your router, and if you’re doing an 802.11g network, it should be an 802.11g access point. There is a Linksys 802..11g access point at Best Buy for $84.99. Here’s a photo:

Making Your Connections. The CD that comes with your wireless router will walk you through making your connections step by step, typically with diagrams. Basically, you first turn off your central networked computer and broadband modem. Then, disconnect the Ethernet cable from your computer and use that cable to connect the broadband modem to your router’s WAN port. Use another Ethernet cable to connect the central computer to one of the Ethernet ports on the router.

Next, turn on your broadband modem and ensure that it is connected. Make sure the router is plugged in and turn it and the computer on. You should be able to browse web sites if you are properly connected, and front LED lights should detail your connections for you. Your installation CD will walk you through routines you need for setting IP addresses. The Linksys CDs make the whole process totally automatic.

Placing Your Access Point. Don’t make the common mistake of randomly putting your access point somewhere else in the house. For a start, put it somewhere within 80 feet of your router, where it will have a good, unobstructed chance to send its radio signals around the house without a lot of obstructions. When you have your network set up, experiment with other ideal locations for it, keeping in mind that the farther a wireless device is from it, the lower the performance you’ll get. The access point has an on/off switch, and its antennas should be standing up, as should the ones on the router.

At this point, any device in the house that has either integrated Wi-Fi or is connected wirelessly through a wireless card should be able to see the network. Don’t forget that support personnel can be extremely helpful if any of the steps so far have failed. By all means call them, and they can troubleshoot whether the router sees the access point, whether computers are getting the signal, etc. In fact, I have neighbors who have simply had a support tech on the phone for the entire thirty minutes it took them to set up their networks. Save the support number for other kinds of help later, and also remember that it’s a good practice to occassionally do a cycled reboot of all your Wi-Fi connections–the broadband modem, the router, the access points and connected devices.

Set Security. You don’t want your neighbors jumping on your Wi-Fi network, so you need to use your setup CD to configure appropriate security. Because security standards are a moving target, I recommend getting a support technician on the phone while you set your security up. In general, the first security step to take is to name your network through the service set identifier (SSID). Most routers also now allow you to disable SSID broadcasting, which is a good choice.

Next, you definitely want to enable encryption, and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) is the best choice for this. You’ll typically set up a password for this. Again, a support tech can help you with these settings, with making sure that your SSIDs all match, and more. The CDs that come with routers also almost all now let you set up a firewall for your network, which you should enable.

And those are the key steps in setting up your home Wi-Fi network. It’s cheap, very easy, and you can have someone on the line to walk you through any problems.

Of course, for Macintosh users the Airport base stations have made home networking nearly a no-brainer. The Airport Extreme base stations are based on draft 802.11n technology so you get very fast speeds, and if you have a newer Mac computer, you’ve got the draft 802.11n technology built in, so you just need to plug-and-play the base station.

A home Wi-Fi network definitely boosts us web workers, but it can also profoundly affect your family if you have one. When I put my first one in several years ago, and my daughters started roaming around with laptops, my wife said it changed the entire rhythm of the house–for the better, because it gave her more breaks. It would be great to hear from readers who have other tips.

Do you have any tips on setting up a home Wi-Fi network?

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