Sep 29 2009

Wireless Routers Offer Freedom

Here are six ways to get the most out of your wireless router.

In the past decade, no other technology has impacted the lives of mobile professionals quite like Wi-Fi. Especially on college campuses, wireless routers offer freedom and convenience that were once unheard of. Here are six tips to help you capitalize on this technology:

1. Start at the ground floor. Because location is everything when dealing with wireless signals, try to keep factors such as line-of-sight and maximum range in mind when placing your router. Most notebook wireless network cards have downward-facing antennas, so wireless access devices ideally should be centrally located at the lowest practical point in your building or set of buildings. 

2. Ensure you are secure. Wi-Fi security has come a long way since the early days of wireless, and in this age of cybercrime and Internet piracy, it is more critical than ever to keep unauthorized users off your network. If you employ a security protocol, such as Wired Equivalent Privacy or Wi-Fi Protected Access, which requires user-defined keys, try to stay away from obvious credentials such as phone numbers or ZIP codes. Also, avoid using any personally identifiable information about yourself when choosing a service set identifier for your access point.

3. Avoid common connection pitfalls. The most common wireless products in the consumer realm today use either 802.11b or 802.11g chip sets. This standard employs a 2.4-gigahertz signal frequency, which can often be disrupted by common household devices such as cordless telephones and microwave ovens. If you find that your wireless signal is unusually weak or unstable, try using the router's configuration interface to change the broadcast channel. If that doesn't fix the problem, survey the surrounding area and disable any devices that could be causing interference. If you are unable to isolate the offending equipment, try repositioning equipment to give yourself a better signal.

4. Know who you're dealing with. It's a good idea to occasionally audit those accessing your wireless network. Fortunately, there are a number of easy ways to do this. Some administrative consoles feature wireless-client shortcuts that will show you who is currently connected; others have a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol clients table that displays the network names and Media Access Control addresses of connecting machines. Enabling your router's logging feature can also offer a wealth of information that can help you track your wireless network's activity.

5. Lock it down. While remote administration is a great feature for any router to have, in truth, most users will never actually need it. More important, remote administration works essentially by leaving your router wide open for anyone on the Internet to access through a simple login – a substantial risk to your network's security. Generally speaking, you should disable this feature on your wireless router unless you actually need to use it. If you choose to enable it, make sure you use a strong login password.  

Maintaining a factory password on any piece of equipment is never a good idea, so you should change your default router password. Doing so takes only a few seconds and can keep both bad guys and malware from taking advantage of this often-overlooked vulnerability.

6. Keep your firmware up to date. It's not unheard of for a device's firmware to be outdated even before it's removed from the box. When setting up a new wireless router, check for and install any available firmware updates. While these updates are usually associated with security and bug fixes, they can also add features and enhancements, such as faster data transfer rates and integration with security and firewall software. Many routers can update themselves automatically, but others will require a bit more user intervention. Take the time to understand your firmware, and make it a point to stay current.