posted by JoanneRodgers on Thu 15th May 2008 23:02 UTC

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Wireless networks can suffer from reliability problems, particularly at the edge of range. It's not uncommon for a wireless device to lose its network, through range issues, interference, or just gremlins. Also, you have to make sure that the physical network connection and electrical power is maintained at the access point, so that means you have to know where it is, have physical access to it, and know how to manage it, if you're going to be able to rely on it. Sometimes access points crash and have to be restarted. Sometimes this can be done in the browser admin screen, sometimes not. In 15 years of using ethernet, I've never had a network go down unless the power went out to the building.

This brings up another wireless challenge. Many wireless-enabled devices are designed by indifferent engineers, and can be difficult to initially configure and manage. It can be hard to find and join the wireless network, and downright impossible to troubleshoot when something goes wrong. Even Windows XP and Vista have given me headaches when I've tried to join wireless networks. The ever-shifting standards for Wi-Fi encryption can make entering passwords tricky, and other Wi-Fi security measures like hidden SSIDs and MAC address filtering further complicate the matter, especially for a non-PC device, which may have a clunky user interface. Other wireless standards, like Bluetooth, rely on pairing for security, which is great once it's done and it works, but can be a challenge when there's a hiccup. Some Bluetooth devices just won't pair with others, for various reasons.

Wireless networking creates security challenges. Depending on who you are, security is either the least or the most important disadvantage of wireless networking. The early Wi-Fi security regime, WEP, was a total joke, and could be easily bypassed by anyone determined. Likewise, commonly-used security precautions like not broadcasting the SSID, Filtering by MAC address, and using static IP addresses are all rather easily circumvented by someone in the know (meaning, someone who has Google and is prepared to use it). ZDNet has compiled a Wireless LAN security hall of shame, debunking the "security" measures that Wi-Fi users depend on. And be sure to read the follow up.

The new Wi-Fi security (WPA) is more robust, and if used properly provides an acceptable amount of security. It is, however, still crackable if it's set using a weak (read: easy to communicate and remember) password. In fact, if you're concerned about the security of your wireless setup, I'd recommend downloading some popular Wi-Fi cracking tools to see how easy it is to infiltrate your own network. Though wired networks can also be infiltrated, the need for physical access to the wires in most cases makes it inherently much more secure.

It's worth mentioning that if a determined data thief has physical access to your cable, then your data is in just as much danger of being intercepted as it is over a wireless network. Likewise, unless all of your computer equipment, including your monitor, CPU, speakerphone, and ethernet cable is Emissions Security or "Tempest" shielded, a dedicated spy can pick up your data using specialized equipment from 200 meters away or more. But unless you're going to be on the wrong side of a national spy agency or sophisticated organized crime or law enforcement network, (or you're a fraternity battling Lambda Lambda Lambda for leadership of the Greek Council), it's probably not worth fretting over.

"But I don't have anything to hide!" you might say. So you're not spying or running drugs or setting up a lucrative Ponzi scheme. But you are banking online, using your ebay account, and passing along sensitive data or storing plenty of personal information on your computer. Maybe you're working on confidential information about your company, or just keeping nude photos of your significant other. The bored teenager in the house next door might find it hilarious to infiltrate your network, even if you're not a notorious criminal or famous movie star.

The last reason to not depend wholly on wireless networking is that not all devices you'd want to connect will inherently support wireless. My DirecTV DVR boxes, print server, and Windows PCs all have ethernet built-in. They can all be adapted to wireless, or in the case of the print server, replaced with a wireless version, but that's extra money and complexity. This will likely change over time, as more products like the Nintendo Wii come out that support Wi-Fi natively and ethernet optionally. Many items, particularly those that are designed for an office environment, like desktop PCs, will support wired networking by default for a long time to come.

An important reason to run more cable than you currently think you'll need is future-proofing. We don't know what the state of the art will be in ten years. We don't know how much bandwidth we'll need, or what kinds of networked devices we'll want to use. Having the wires in the wall makes good sense.

There was a recent clear example of a situation where we were glad to have an ethernet cable in the wall. We wanted to convert one of our bedrooms into an exercise room, and on one particular wall we wanted to mount a small LCD TV to take the monotony out of running on the treadmill. This wall had an ethernet cable in it, which terminated at a patch panel in the utility room. I was able to terminate each of three pairs of the cat5 cables with RCA video plugs in red, blue, and green to create what's essentially a long component video cable, and use the extra pair to transmit digital audio. I hooked the other end of this run up to my HD DVR, and thus whatever is being displayed by that DVR in its room is now mirrored in the exercise room. Add to that a Logitech Harmony Remote that transmits by Radio Frequency instead of infrared, and I can easily watch and control HDTV (with DVR features) while running, and all it took was repurposing an ethernet cable that was already in the wall.

Suck on that, wireless! That would have been very hard and expensive to do without a wire.

So my response to Martha Stewart is this: I don't know if Bill Gates' house is already out of date. Since he's an alpha geek, he's probably already updated everything in it since that article was written anyway. But if it is, it's certainly not out of date because it's brimming with cables. Whatever features "Bill Gates' House XP Media Center Edition, Service Pack 3" contains, I'm certain they're making good use of the miles of cables, and will continue to do so for as long as he lives there. Likewise, my advice to anyone who's building or remodeling a house today: don't skimp on the cabling. That extra $300 you spend on copper (or fiber) today will pay dividends long into the future.


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