How Do Wireless Routers Work?
In the past 20 years, wireless networking has expanded from the realm of technology specialists to being commonplace in the home. For a cost that typically runs less than a few tanks of gasoline, consumers can now create a wireless network from existing Internet services for the home or small business. With the significant increase in wireless device usage, a common question that arises for end-users is how do wireless routers work?
What is Wifi?
WiFi is the acronym commonly used to refer to the existing 802.11 wireless networking standard as published by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers). The first version of the wireless networking standard that saw widespread usage through academia and some consumers was the 802.11B version of the standard. As new capabilities are introduced to the standard, a new letter is added to the designation with 802.11N networks being the most current deployed at the time of writing. To date, as the IEEE releases a new revision of the standard, they can be configured to support legacy equipment that cannot be upgraded to run on the latest networking standard.
How Do Wireless Networks Work?
A wireless network operates in the RF (radio frequency) spectrum from 2.4 to 5 GHz. The transmissions operate similar to cell phone or television signals. When a computer uses a wireless network, the associated wireless adapter will encode the network transmission into a RF signal and send it via the wireless antenna of the device. The antenna can either be built into the device, or connected via USB or other periphery connection on the device. Individual wireless antennas can also be connected to a computer or network capable device to increase the range that a wireless signal can effectively be used. The wireless router on a network is then responsible for receiving and forwarding transmitted information both to and from the connected device and local network or Internet through a high-speed connection.
How Does a Wireless Router Work?
A wireless router must be connected to a network or Internet connection and serves as a bridge or gateway for the client devices that access the router. For most consumers, a wireless router is connected directly to a DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) or cable Internet connection via Ethernet or USB connection. The router decodes information received from client computers from the RF signal to the appropriate network datagram to be sent to computer hosts on the local or external network.
Wireless routers also receive and encode data received from the Internet to transmit to the appropriate device on the local wireless network. The operation of a wireless network is similar to that used in two-way radio communication systems with the router providing the mechanism for all network operations by the local computer hosts. Local network security, MAC address filtering, and computer firewall settings are configured using the wireless router configuration panel and help add a layer of security to home or small business network setups.
Current Wireless Networking Standards
The 802.11 networking standard has been the primary wireless implementation found on the marketplace over the past two decades. The 802.11a version of the standard supports speeds approaching 54 Mbs in the 5 GHz spectrum; however, required a more complex version of hardware to operate a network using this version of the standard. Once the 802.11B version was released, the popularity of wireless networks started to increase. Although the rated speed of an 802.11B network is only 11 Mbs, the wireless routers and other supporting equipment are significantly cheaper than the 802.11a standard. The “Bravo” version operates in the 2.4 Ghz frequency band.
The 802.11g wireless networking standard operates in the 2.4 GHz spectrum and is capable of speeds approaching 54 Mbs. The standard uses OFDM encoding that is found in the “Alpha” standard and has exceeded the 802.11b standard in popularity. The most recently introduced version of 802.11 is the “n” standard that supports network speeds of 140 Mbs and supports the most recent security protocols.
How Do Computers Connect to Wireless Networks?
Before a computer or other device such as a phone can connect to a wireless network, it must have an operational wireless adapter. Although most modern computing devices have the adapters built-in to the device (for example laptops, phones, iPods, MP-3 players, etc.), some legacy models will require an external wireless card or adapter in order to connect to a wireless network. Once an adapter is installed and active on a computer, the supporting software is able to detect the wireless networks that are in range of the computer. For a Windows PC, when the “Network” icon located in the System Tray is opened, the “Show Available Networks” menu option can be clicked to show those within range of the computer.
To successfully connect a computer or wireless device to the wireless network, the desired network is selected or clicked upon at this point. If the wireless router has security enabled, a password or passphrase must be entered (case sensitive in most cases) in order to join the network and successfully use the wireless network.
How Are Wireless Routers Setup?
In the 1990s and even early 2000s, it was fairly popular to “wire” a home or apartment for Ethernet connections throughout the structure to share a wired Internet connection. Since the widespread adoption of wireless technology, any consumer can setup a wireless router to share a DSL or cable connection. The majority of legacy 802.11g wireless routers are able to see ranges of approximately 30 meters or 100 feet, while newer 802.11n routers are able to see ranges that exceed these. After a router is connected to power and the primary Internet connection at the cable or DSL modem, they must be configured to support client connections on the local network. Some of the common configuration tasks that a wireless router requires are: configuring the SSID, setting up network security options, computer firewall settings, and MAC address filtering.
Connecting to the Wireless Router Configuration Panel
The majority of wireless routers include a configuration panel that is accessible via web page on a computer that is connected via Ethernet cable to the router. Once the connection is made, the web browser is launched, and the default IP address for the brand of router is entered in the web address tool bar. For example, the 192.168.1.1 IP address is the default Linksys router IP address, and the default Netgear IP is 192.168.0.1. Once the address is entered, the login screen for the router configuration panel is displayed. The majority of wireless router manufacturers will have the default password for their brand activated on new routers at this stage. As an example, newer Linksys routers have a blank entry for the default username and a password of “admin” without the quotes out of the box. Once the login and password are entered, the wireless router configuration panel is launched.
Configuring the SSID (Service Set Identifier)
The SSID, or Service Set Identifier, is the name of the wireless network. If the SSID is not changed on a new wireless router, a default SSID will be used for network setup. It is generally recommended for consumers to change the SSID to a unique name for private networks to avoid issues with other end-users that may choose to not change the network name on their local network. The SSID will be a case sensitive text string that has a maximum length of 32 characters. An increasingly popular security option is to not broadcast the network name to prevent others from attempting to access the network.
Another option set in the same area of the configuration panel is the wireless channel that is being used by the wireless router. The importance of toggling the channel selection increases with the number of wireless networks operating in the vicinity of your wireless router. All channels generally provide the same level of performance for consumers, so changing to something not set as the default can provide a basic means of frequency deconfliction for the end-user.
Configuring Wireless Router Security Options
There are a number of encryption standards available to secure a wireless network. One of the more popular encryption standards is the WEP (Wired Equivalency Privacy) security standard. Although still used in many locations today, there are a number of security vulnerabilities with the WEP standard that will not withstand a dedicated attempt to hack the WEP password on a network. As a result, the WiFi Protected Access (WPA) protocol is increasing in popularity and uses TKIP (temporary key integrity protocol) encryption. Another option that can be used in addition to encryption is configuring MAC (Media Access Control) filtering on the network. This requires the administrator enter the MAC address for each device that will access the network into the wireless router configuration panel. The usability of the network is assessed to be lower when using this option; however, it has been found that even MAC addresses can be faked or spoofed when given enough time to analyze network traffic of a target network.
How to Change a Wireless Router Password
The majority of major wireless routers produced today have a configuration panel that is accessible via web browser. Once a new router is purchased, a common security task to do is to change the wireless router password.
Step 1 – Turn on the wireless router if it is not already plugged in.
Step 2 – Connect a laptop to the router via Ethernet cable. The Ethernet port on the wireless router will be located on the rear of the device for most brands/models.
Step 3 – Verify the light corresponding to the Ethernet port that the laptop is connected to is illuminated.
Step 4 – Launch or open the computer’s web browser. If there are issues with your primary web browser, try an alternative one such as Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox.
Step 5 – Enter the default IP address for the router brand in the web browser’s address bar and press the “enter” or “return” key on the computer’s keyboard.
Step 6 – Once the router’s configuration panel or webpage launches, enter the default wireless router login and password. If you have changed the login and password previously, these entries should be used instead of the router’s defaults.
Step 7 – Open the “Administrator” or “Administration” section of the router’s configuration menu. Some routers will then have a “Management” sub-section of this screen that will need to be launched or opened.
Step 8 – Input the new password for the router in the “Password” field of the router. Depending on the router model, you may have to enter the new user name first. The password entry will need to be entered twice to confirm the new setting on most router types. Older router models may also limit the total password length that can be used for the router.
Step 9 – Click the “Save Settings” menu option on the wireless router configuration panel. Note, that if you decide to change the network’s password as well as the router’s, it will have to be provided to all authorized users of the router in order to access the network.