Wireless access points provide versatility, flexibility

The Lowdown

What are they? Wireless access points, referred to as WAPs or wireless APs, are wireless LAN transceivers that connect a wired LAN to one or more wired devices. Some wireless APs also provide bridging, gateway and router functions.

What's available? Three standards govern today's wireless AP market. The most common and least expensive are 802.11b APs, which have a maximum throughput of 11 Mbps on the 2.4-GHz spectrum. Boasting throughput speeds of 54 Mbps, 802.11a devices run on the less-crowded 5-GHz band. Also running at 54 Mbps, but in the 2.4-GHz band, 802.11g devices are backward compatible with 802.11b devices.

Must-know info? At the moment, 802.11b products are the most common and least expensive, but they have limitations. Although 802.11a APs are faster and can handle more users, they have a shorter range and are more expensive than devices that use the other standards. The 802.11g standard, the likely successor to 11b, adds speed and capacity, and 802.11g devices are backward compatible with 11b devices. Dual-band or triple-band devices that incorporate more than a single standard provide optimum flexibility and versatility, often at good prices.

Security concerns notwithstanding, the number of wireless LANs throughout government is growing. And WiFi, or wireless fidelity, is the global standard for wireless LANs.

WiFi LANs use essentially the same type of equipment as their wired counterparts: adapters (network interface cards), access points, bridges, gateways and routers. The main difference is that they all function wirelessly.

The wireless access points featured in this guide function as wireless hubs or base stations designed to transmit and receive WiFi wireless data and use a built-in or external antenna. The main job of an access point is to attach to a wired LAN.

As WiFi technology has developed, however, the distinction between pure access points and wireless bridges, and gateways and routers has blurred; many of the functions now reside within the same box.

The first wireless LAN standard, 802.11, was approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1997 and supported speeds up to 2 Mbps. In 1999, the IEEE approved both the 802.11a and 802.11b standards. The IEEE gave final approval to the 802.11g standard in June 2003.

WiFi components based on these three standards are faster, lower in cost and easier to set up than previous, largely proprietary generations of wireless LAN products.

J.B. Miles of Honomu, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@starband.net.

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