How to Set Up a Wireless Network in 4 Steps

Updated: April 30, 2009

Wireless networks have some major advantages over traditional, cabled networks. First, you don't have to pull cables through walls and ceilings or install wall jacks. Second, devices that are wirelessly connected are portable; you can move them around the office at will. Finally, guests in your company's office can easily connect to the network, subject to security protocols that an administrator controls.

However, wireless networks do present potential security problems. Unless a wireless network is properly configured, it is vulnerable to anyone passing by your company's office, people on the floor above or below the office, or even individuals outside of the building. The range of wireless networks is shorter than that of wired networks and varies depending on the thickness and composition of intervening walls, floors and ceilings. Wireless networks are slower than modern wired networks but can still reach respectable speeds of more than 54 Mbps.

Here are step-by-step instructions for setting up a wireless network.

1. Choose Your Networking Hardware

You will need at least two pieces of hardware: a broadband wireless router and a wireless-network adapter.

The router incorporates a wireless access point that is the interface between your wired Internet connection and the radio network that broadcasts and receives Internet traffic throughout the access point's range. The router controls traffic between the devices in your network and the Internet, combining outgoing messages and routing them to the Internet, as well as directing incoming traffic to individual devices.

The wireless-network adapter enables a device (typically a PC or a printer) to send and receive messages over the wireless network. It is essentially a small, two-way radio transmitter.

Wireless networks use one of several flavors of the 802.11 standard. The most flexible version is 802.11b/g. The "g" standard is backward-compatible with the "b" standard, so this type of router can connect to network adapters that use either the "b" or "g" standards (though it will not connect to older, slower "a"-type adapters).

Once you have purchased the router and the network adapter(s), the next step is to connect the router to the Internet.

2. Unplug Your Cable or DSL Modem to Turn It Off

Disconnect the modem from the incoming phone wire or coaxial cable that connects it to the Internet.

Next, connect your router to the modem using a CAT 5 cable, which is usually supplied with the router. Plug the cable into the router port labeled "WAN," "WLAN" or "Internet" on the back of the router.

Reconnect the modem to the Internet and turn it on. After a short period during which the modem and router negotiate with each other, the router's LEDs should light up in a way that indicates it is connected to the Internet. See the router's documentation to figure out what the LEDs mean.

3. Configure the Router

Temporarily connect a PC to the router using a CAT 5 cable. Plug one end of the cable into the PC's Ethernet adapter and the other end into one of the router's Ethernet ports. Turn on the PC, and it will automatically connect to the router.

Open your Web browser and enter the router's IP address in the address field. The router's IP address, as well as the default username and password that gives you access to the router's configuration screens, can be found in the router's documentation.

Most of the router's configuration options can be left on their default settings, but there are a few settings that you should change:

  • Set a unique network name, also known as the SSID (service set identifier). The SSID may be your company name, a personal name or any word that gives your network an easily recognized identity.
  • Enable WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access) encryption to keep unauthorized persons from accessing the network. A list of encryption keys — basically passwords — will be displayed. Write down at least one of them.
  • Change the administrative password so that only you (or a delegated administrator) can alter the router's configuration settings.

Once you have configured the router, save the new settings. The router will reboot, and the new settings will be enabled.

Disconnect the CAT 5 cable from your PC and router.

4. Install Wireless-Network Adapters in Devices

Many laptops and printers come with built-in wireless-network adapters. For desktop PCs, you may use a PCI-card network adapter. USB or PC Card wireless-network adapters are available for laptop users. You may or may not need to install driver software from a CD.

When you boot a wireless-enabled PC, a small wireless-networking icon will appear in the system tray. Right-click this icon and select the "View Available Wireless Networks" option. Highlight the name of your wireless network and click the "Connect" button.

WPA2 will request an encryption key. Enter the key that you wrote down earlier.

Close the wireless-connection window.

You are now wirelessly connected to the Internet!

An Alternative to WPA2 Encryption

While WPA2 provides a high level of security, the long encryption keys can be a burden on users. Instead of enabling WPA2 encryption, administrators of small networks may want to limit connections to a list of known devices.

Each wireless-network adapter has a MAC (Media Access Control) address, a string of characters that uniquely identifies it. Often, this MAC address is printed right on the network adapter. Your router's configuration screen should give you the option to enter multiple MAC addresses. When this feature is set up properly, only MAC addresses that have been added to this list will be allowed to connect to the wireless network.

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