Here are answers to some common questions about wireless networks.

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What is a wireless network?

A network can be one computer connected to the Internet, or two or more computers connected to each other (and also to the Internet). In a wireless network, the computers are connected by radio signals instead of wires or cables. Advantages of wireless networks include mobility and no unsightly wires. Disadvantages can include a slower connection than a wired network and interference from other wireless devices, such as cordless phones.

Illustration of a wireless network with a shared Internet connection
Wireless network with a shared Internet connection

What are the different types of wireless network technologies?

Currently there are four options: 802.11b, 802.11a, 802.11g, and 802.11n. The tables below compare these technologies.

802.11b

Speed

Up to 11 megabits per second (Mbps)

Pros
  • Has good signal range

Cons
  • Has the slowest transmission speed

  • Allows for fewer simultaneous users

  • Uses the 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) frequency (the same as many microwave ovens, cordless phones, and other appliances), which can cause interference

802.11a

Speed

Up to 54 Mbps

Pros
  • Allows for more simultaneous users

  • Uses the 5 GHz frequency, which limits interference from other devices

Cons
  • Has a shorter signal range, which is more easily obstructed by walls and other obstacles

  • Is not compatible with 802.11b network adapters, routers, and access points

802.11g

Speed

Up to 54 Mbps

Pros
  • Has a transmission speed comparable to 802.11a under optimal conditions

  • Allows for more simultaneous users

  • Has good signal range and is not easily obstructed

  • Is compatible with 802.11b network adapters, routers, and access points

Cons
  • Uses the 2.4 GHz frequency so it has the same interference problems as 802.11b

802.11n

Speed

Depending upon the number of data streams the hardware supports, 802.11n can transmit data at up to 150 Mbps, 300 Mbps, 450 Mbps, or 600 Mbps

Pros
  • Has the fastest speed

  • Uses multiple signals and antennas for better speed

  • Allows for more simultaneous users

  • Has the best signal range and isn't easily obstructed

  • Is resistant to interference from other devices

  • Can use either the 2.4 GHz or 5.0 GHz frequency

  • If using 2.4 GHz frequency, it's compatible with 802.11g network adapters, routers, and access points

Cons
  • If using the 2.4 GHz frequency, it can have the same interference problems as 802.11b

  • This protocol is still being finalized, and some requirements could change

If you have more than one wireless network adapter in your computer or if your adapter uses more than one standard, you can specify which adapter or standard to use for each network connection. For example, if you have a computer you use for streaming media to other computers on your network, you should set it up to use an 802.11a or 802.11n connection, if available, because you'll get a faster data transfer rate when you watch videos or listen to music.

What hardware does my computer need to be on a wireless network?

Your computer needs an internal or external wireless network adapter. To see if your computer has a wireless network adapter, do the following:

  • Open Network Connections by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, clicking Control Panel, clicking Network and Internet, clicking Network and Sharing Center, and then clicking Manage network connections.

    The adapters installed in your computer are listed.

What is wireless signal strength?

In the list of available wireless networks, you'll see a symbol Picture of the wireless network signal strength icon that shows the wireless signal strength for each network. The more bars, the stronger the signal. A strong signal (five bars) usually means that the wireless network is close or there is no interference. For best performance, connect to the wireless network with the strongest signal. However, if an unsecured network has a stronger signal than a security-enabled one, it's safer for your data if you connect to the security-enabled network (but you must be an authorized user of that network). To improve the signal strength, you can move your computer closer to the wireless router or access point, or move the router or access point so it's not close to sources of interference such as brick walls or walls that contain metal support beams.
  • Open Connect to a Network by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, and then clicking Connect to.

What are the risks of connecting to a public wireless network?

Public wireless networks are convenient, but if they are not properly secured, connecting to one might be risky. Whenever possible, only connect to wireless networks that require a network security key or have some other form of security, such as a certificate. The information sent over such networks is encrypted, which can help protect your computer from unauthorized access. In the list of available wireless networks, each network is labeled as either security-enabled or unsecured. If you do connect to a network that is not secure, be aware that someone with the right tools can see everything that you do, including the websites you visit, the documents you work on, and the user names and passwords you use. You should not work on documents or visit websites that contain personal information, such as your bank records, while you are connected to that network.

How do I find a wireless network that's not on the list of available networks?

If you've connected to the network before, make sure your computer is in range of the network (no more than 150 feet [46 meters] indoors and 300 feet [92 meters] outdoors for 802.11b and 802.11g hardware and no more than 50 feet [15 meters] indoors and 100 feet [30 meters] outdoors for 802.11a hardware), the router or access point is turned on (if you have access to the router or access point), and the wireless switch on your computer is turned on. (Not all computers have a switch; if yours does, it's typically located on the front or side of the computer.) If you have not connected to the network, broadcasting might be turned off and you might have to manually add the network. To add a network that is not broadcasting, follow these steps:

  1. Open Connect to a Network by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, and then clicking Connect to.

  2. Click Set up a connection or network.

  3. Click Manually connect to a wireless network, and then type the network information.

    The network is added to your list of networks and is available to connect to in the future when your computer is in range.

Why do I need to copy wireless network settings to other computers and devices on my network?

The other computers and devices on your network need to know how to communicate with the wireless router so they can send and receive information on the network. Each computer or device needs settings such as the network name and the network security key so that it can communicate with the router. When you add devices or computers to your network using the Set Up a Wireless Router or Access Point wizard, Windows provides step-by-step instructions for copying the appropriate settings to your computers.

  • Open Set Up a Wireless Router or Access Point by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, clicking Control Panel, clicking Network and Internet, and then clicking Network and Sharing Center. In the left pane, click Set up a connection or network, and then click Set up a wireless router or access point.

Can I use software other than Windows to manage my wireless network connections?

Yes. Even though automatic wireless network configuration is enabled by default in Windows, you can disable it by installing and using a different program. Many network adapters come with their own wireless management software. If you are using another program to manage your wireless network connections and you want to use Windows instead, follow these steps:

  1. Turn off or disable the other program.

  2. Open the Command Prompt window by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, clicking All Programs, clicking Accessories, and then clicking Command Prompt.

  3. Type netsh wlan show settings.

    If automatic wireless network configuration is disabled, you will see Auto configuration logic is disabled on interface "Interface name".

  4. To enable auto configuration, type set autoconfig enabled=yes interface="<Interface name>".

How can I tell if my wireless network adapter works with Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) or Wi‑Fi Protected Access (WPA) encryption?

When you set up a network, Windows determines what type of encryption your router or access point and your computer's network adapter work with, and recommends an option. To see which types of encryption the network adapter works with, check the information that came with your adapter or computer, or go to the manufacturer’s website.