Wired vs Wireless: Sometimes There’s No Substitute for a Cable

In a June 2003 Wired Magazine interview, Martha Stewart said, “Bill Gates’ house, for example, is totally out of date now. He built it right before wireless happened. The big tunnels for all his wires – he doesn’t need any of that stuff anymore.” The article wasn’t about networking, or even technology, but I was struck by that statement because it was echoed by several people when I was explaining that I was running many thousands of feet of cable in OSNews’ “house of the future.” “Is all that cable really necessary now that there’s wireless everything?” people said. As much as I respect Martha Stewart’s business and design acumen, neither she, nor those people who talked to me, know what they’re talking about. When it comes to networking, there’s no substitute for a wire, when a wire’s available. — This is the latest entry in our 2008 Article Contest.
OSNews has been working on an ongoing series about home automation and new home computing technology, and we’ve been collaborating on a home being built in Park City, UT to recommend and spec out various home technology options. One thing that we recommended is lots and lots of cable. Every area where we’ve determined that a computer or home entertainment device is likely to be located, we’ve run 2-3 strands of RG6 coaxial cable and 2-3 strands of cat5e ethernet cable. We’ve also included conduit to major A/V and computer areas to facilitate running fiber or any other future physical transmission medium. We’ve also run speaker cable through the walls in many rooms to enable surround sound, and special structured cable in many areas that’s specially-built for wired surveillance cameras.

To save time, we used structured wiring that comes as a bundle of two coaxial and two cat5 ethernet cables. All this cable terminates at a patch panel where it can be purposed for phone, data, or AV. We also ran extra strands of cat5 and RG6 cable to areas where we thought we’d need them. We always erred on the side of too much cable. “Wasting” some by never using it, we believed, was better than needing it later and not having it.

That being said, we have also run cable to central areas specifically to accommodate Wi-Fi hotspots, and we’ve recommended a two-line wireless expandable phone system. It’s not that we’re against wireless. We love it. I was a very early adopter of wireless networking; I purchased the first affordable Wi-Fi products: the Apple AirPort base station and the Lucent WaveLan cards when they first came on the market, and I’ve never looked back. I’d sooner give up running water than Wi-Fi. I’ve taken bucket showers. It’s not so bad.

First of all, let’s talk about wireless’ clear superiority in some instances. Obviously, it’s wireless, so any time you need to network a device that you need to be able to carry around, wireless is a no-brainer. I remember my beloved Newton Messagepad 2000. In some ways, it was better than any handheld computing device I’ve ever owned, up to and including my iPhone. However, it had two networking options: modem connected to a wired phoneline and wired ethernet. There was no Wi-Fi back then. There was an early municipal wireless system called Ricochet, but not in my town. So the Newton was missing its killer app.

Wireless is also welcome and indispensable when you need to locate a networked device in an area where running cable is not practical: Old homes, rented apartments, the corner by your bed where you want your Wi-Fi alarm clock to go, etc. This actually applies to most homes and apartments today. Unless you built your own house, you don’t have enough cable in the walls. An ordinary builder just won’t include enough wiring to serve the needs of even the most typical home technology consumer. Consumer electronics vendors realize this. All of the major game console makers, for example, support wireless networking. The Wii has Wi-Fi by default, and ethernet support requires the purchase of an add-on dongle. Nintendo, rightly, realized that more Wii buyers would have Wi-Fi than an available Ethernet jack near their TV.

So we’ve established that wireless is awesome and indispensable. What are the wireless disadvantages?

Wireless has an inherent bandwidth limitation. The latest 802.11n MIMO (Multiple in, multiple out) Wi-Fi routers offer bandwidth of just over 100 Mbps if you’re right next to the router, fairly evenly dropping down to 80 Mbps or slower as you move farther away. So that looks pretty good. Fast Ethernet is also 100 Mbps. But in real-world use, Fast Ethernet delivers about 50% faster performance than 802.11n. Gigabit ethernet’s real-world speed boost is about 4-5 times that of 802.11n. New wireless standards will surely improve bandwidth and transmission quality, but new wired standards already exist to blow them away. Let’s not even mention fiber.

To be fair, this is all academic if your bandwidth needs are modest. 802.11n actually gives you enough bandwidth to safely stream HDTV content, though if you’re also transferring other files on the same network, you’ll probably get hiccups. Bottlenecks are also important to acknowledge. You can have gigabit ethernet in your home, but if you’re connecting to the internet via a 1.5 Mbps DSL line, all the gigabit in the world isn’t going to make your web sites load any faster. The bottom line is, aside from streaming HDTV, most consumers are going to have a hard time hitting up against the upper limit of wireless networks.

Wireless networks suffer from (and cause) interference. Wi-Fi exists because in 1985 the US Federal Communications Commission freed three bands of the wireless spectrum to be used without a license. As explained in a June 10, 2004 Economist article: “the FCC, prompted by a visionary engineer on its staff, Michael Marcus, took three chunks of spectrum from the industrial, scientific and medical bands and opened them up to communications entrepreneurs. These so-called “garbage bands,” at 900MHz, 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz, were already allocated to equipment that used radio-frequency energy for purposes other than communications: microwave ovens, for example, which use radio waves to heat food. The FCC made them available for communications purposes as well, on the condition that any devices using these bands would have to steer around interference from other equipment.”

This then-obscure decision unleashed a torrent of innovation in the consumer technology arena, because it enabled regular people to use sophisticated wireless communication without getting a license from the government, which used to be required for just about every type of wireless device, including CB radios. The problem is, since all of these devices are crammed into the same part of the spectrum, and have to share it with microwave ovens and other “garbage,” it can cause performance to suffer, and other problems. The most common example of this is the inability for otherwise-wonderful 2.4 GHz cordless phones to play nice with Wi-Fi networks.

Manufacturers have been pretty good at devising ways to heed the FCC’s mandate to “steer around” interference issues, but the hard truth is that if you have too much traffic sharing the same band of spectrum, there’s going to be trouble. So, the more wireless devices you use, not only do you fill up the precious bandwidth supply, but interference can downgrade the performance of every device sharing that slice of spectrum.

Wireless eats batteries. Though there are wireless technologies that have been specifically designed to conserve energy, such as Bluetooth, Wibree, and Ultra Wideband, even they need to expend extra energy to broadcast a wireless signal; far above what little electricity is required to send a signal over copper wires. Wi-Fi in particular is an energy hog when it comes to battery-powered devices. The problem is, almost by definition, if something needs batteries, it probably needs wireless too. Nevertheless, on occasion I have my laptop at a conference table, with no power supply. It’s nice to have a couple of stray ethernet cables sticking up through a hole in the table, to help me save my battery while I’m playing Peggle or updating my Facebook page in the conference room instead of working at my desk. Try it sometime. It makes you look like you’re working harder, when you’re actually slacking off.

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.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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