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Going to the AirPort

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My brief story about setting up a wireless Ethernet network in our hotel room at Macworld Expo for the purposes of sharing a Ricochet-based Internet connection made some readers wish that they too could do such things (see "Macworld SF 2001: Go Wireless, Young Mac" in TidBITS-565). I started to reply that it was really easy, which was when I realized I haven't written much about setting up and using an AirPort-based wireless Ethernet network, even though Tonya and I have been using one in our house for over a year. The reason for my oversight is actually quite simple - the AirPort network was almost trivial to set up, and once running, it just works. But simplicity, reliability, and elegance are the hallmarks of AirPort, and why I now recommend it as the first choice for networking all modern Macs.


iBook Online -- We decided to make the jump into using an AirPort wireless network at the end of 1999 because Tonya was finding that using her desktop system (a Power Mac 7600 with a pair of monitors) was increasingly difficult as Tristan approached the age of one and became mobile. He was especially intrigued by the 50-foot bright blue Ethernet cable we'd strung through the kitchen and dining room to Tonya's Mac, and although he was never seriously into chewing, that blue cable was an irresistible plaything. We figured that switching Tonya to an iBook would have numerous advantages, including clearing a desk and computer system out of our dining room, eliminating the decorating nightmare of a 50-foot blue cable from our kitchen, and letting Tonya work anywhere in the house. But since much of what Tonya does is tied to email and the Web, it was important to her to have access to our Internet connection, and AirPort wireless networking made that possible.

The two pieces that were necessary were the $100 internal AirPort card for Tonya's iBook, which we had installed at purchase, and the $300 AirPort Base Station, which connects to our wired Ethernet network and enables the iBook to communicate with our other Macs, our printer, and the Internet. At that point, Apple hadn't yet released version 1.2 of the AirPort software, which enables a Mac with an AirPort card to act as a software base station, and worse, we didn't then have another AirPort-capable Mac that could run the software base station. Although relying on a Mac and the software base station feature might seem like a great way of saving $200, that Mac would have to remain running all the time, and even though my current Power Mac G4/450 is usually running, I go through spates of restarting when testing software. Tonya would be less than pleased to lose network connectivity every time I restarted.

The first version of the AirPort software was, frankly, pretty bad. Apple clearly rushed it out, and although it worked, the interface was poor. I didn't have much trouble using it for my Macs, but when I tried to help a PC-using friend see if it would work with his PC laptop and an Aironet 802.11 PC Card, it took quite some thrashing about before we got the PC to work and fixed the settings we'd screwed up in the process. Apple has now updated the AirPort software to version 1.2, which appears to have improved the interface significantly. Since the AirPort Base Station is a "set and forget" device, I haven't had any reason to use the new software.

Alternative Connections -- I have one of the old Farallon SkyLINE 2 Mbps PC Cards for my old PowerBook G3; the 802.11b wireless Ethernet standard is backwards-compatible with older, slower versions of 802.11 like that supported by my 2 Mbps card. The standard also allows devices to step down in speed from 11 Mbps to 5, 2, and then 1 Mbps to keep a clear connection. I've used the Farallon card on occasion at home, but there's little point, since the primary function of my PowerBook at home is to play MP3s, which means it needs wires for power and speakers. One more for the network isn't a problem. 2 Mbps is fine for playing MP3s and browsing the Web; the only time I noticed the speed being a problem was while copying hundreds of megabytes of files. The 2 Mbps SkyLINE card's range isn't as good as Tonya's iBook's range, something I attribute to the iBook's internal antenna. I have used the SkyLINE card while travelling with success, though I find its software a little funky.

None of our other Macs need wireless Ethernet access, but options are starting to become available for older Macs that aren't AirPort-capable. Farallon now has a $190 11 Mbps SkyLINE PC Card, the main competition for which is the sub-$150 Lucent Orinoco Turbo PC Card (previously called the WaveLAN Turbo). The advantage enjoyed by the Lucent card is that it's actually at the heart of both Apple's internal AirPort cards and the AirPort Base Station, so Apple's software just works with it (at least under Mac OS 9.x).

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PC Cards will satisfy PowerBook users, but people with most older PCI Power Macs aren't out in the cold any more, thanks to the $70 Farallon SkyLINE PCI Card, a carrier card that accepts a SkyLINE 11Mb PC Card (get both for $240). It's perfect if you have a Power Mac 7500 or similar PCI Mac in an area that's awkward for wiring.

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For even older Macs that use NuBus or other expansion slots, Lucent makes the Orinoco Ethernet Converter that works with a Lucent Orinoco PC Card to convert a standard Ethernet port into a wireless Ethernet connection. It could theoretically provide access to older Macs, but it's a fairly expensive solution at about $370.

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DSL, Cable, and Modems -- We have a dedicated 56K frame relay connection to the Internet that runs through a Livingston router and BAT Technologies CSU/DSU. The AirPort Base Station works perfectly with our setup, but we don't use many of its capabilities. Complicated connections like ours are unusual now, since cable and DSL are cheaper and easier, and most people still rely on modems. In those situations, the AirPort Base Station (or the software base station software) can distribute your connection to all your networked computers, whether they're wired or wireless.

The trick is that the AirPort Base Station supports a pair of networking technologies, NAT and DHCP. DHCP stands for Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol and lets the AirPort Base Station dole out private IP numbers to all the computers on your internal wired and wireless networks. NAT - Network Address Translation - enables the AirPort Base Station to have a single IP address from your ISP (either dynamic, where it changes each time you connect, or static, where it's always the same) and do the necessary routing of Internet traffic to the internal machine that requested it. For instance, if your iBook requests a Web page, the AirPort Base Station sends the request out as though it came from its own IP number, and when it receives the response back, it sends the data on to the iBook properly, rather than any other Mac on your network. You can think of the AirPort Base Station as a traffic cop directing packets of data (and it's worth noting that if you have another router doing DHCP and NAT already, you can easily turn off the AirPort Base Station's NAT and DHCP capabilities).

So if you have a dialup connection to the Internet, you just plug the AirPort Base Station into your telephone line and then give it the number to dial and your login information in the AirPort Admin Utility (assuming you haven't already done this via the AirPort Setup Assistant, which transfers Internet settings from your computer to the AirPort Base Station). It dials out automatically when an Internet application asks for a connection, and it hangs up after a pre-specified amount of idle time. Full manual control, which might be important if you're charged for phone or ISP connections, is available through a pair of third-party utilities. Larry Rosenstein's AirPort Modem Utility 1.1 lets you connect and disconnect the modem manually, and Pascal Werz's AirPort Modem Config 1.0.2 lets you prevent your AirPort Base Station from dialing automatically.

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The AirPort Base Station can't connect to AOL, and Apple has been dinged for this in the past, but anyone who complains should instead direct their ire at AOL for continuing to rely on proprietary technologies to keep people using the AOL application - this is the same policy reason Eudora and other standard Internet email applications can't pick up email from AOL. The AirPort Base Station works with ISPs that use Internet standards, and the responsibility to fix this problem lies with AOL, not Apple or anyone else.

Less fussing is necessary if you have a DSL or cable modem connection. They generally come into your house in the form of an Ethernet connection that you can plug directly into your AirPort Base Station if you have no machines on a wired Ethernet. If you do have a conventional network, instead plug the DSL or cable connection into the uplink port on an Ethernet hub, after which you run another Ethernet cable to your AirPort Base Station and to any other Macs that need access to the wired Ethernet network. Configuration of the AirPort Base Station in these situations is much like configuring the TCP/IP control panel (and may not even be necessary if the AirPort Setup Assistant has done its job). If your ISP gives you an IP number via DHCP, you can select that from the "Connect using" pop-up menu in the AirPort Admin Utility; otherwise choose Manually and enter the appropriate settings (which you may need to get from your ISP). The main gotcha is that the AirPort Base Station doesn't support PPPoE (PPP over Ethernet, a silly technology used by phone companies to monitor usage). Farallon's new $400 NetLINE Wireless Broadband Gateway lacks a modem but promises to handle PPPoE for DSL connections that are so hampered.

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Apple's PDF document "Designing AirPort Networks" (available from Apple's AirPort page linked above) is a helpful overview of the different approaches to setting up your wireless network and connecting it to the Internet.

Technical Difficulties -- I hate to sound uncritical, but we've had basically no problems at all with our AirPort network. The only annoyance occurs when printing. Our LaserWriter Select 360 is next to my desk, down one floor and at the farthest point in the house away from the AirPort Base Station. If Tonya brings her iBook down and sits next to the printer and sends print jobs from MYOB, sometimes they fail to print. We suspect it's related to a combination of distance-related retransmission errors and the SE/30 running LocalTalk Bridge that makes the LocalTalk-only LaserWriter accessible to the Macs on Ethernet. If she moves closer to the AirPort Base Station, the problem goes away, so it's hard to complain too loudly.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about using an AirPort network is that it's fuzzy - you never quite know what range you'll achieve, since it's dependent on variables like the type and number of walls in the way. Apple claims a 150 foot range, but they're being conservative in most cases, since the antennas inside iBooks and recent PowerBooks can do better than that. I've gotten Tonya's iBook to work almost to our neighbors' living room, easily 300 to 400 feet away.

Such limitations aren't specific to the underlying 802.11b wireless Ethernet technology that the AirPort uses. If you attach a better antenna to an AirPort Base Station, you can significantly increase its range. I know little about adding antennas and increasing range, though I've found a page detailing how to hack an AirPort Base Station to connect better antennas, and friends at MacHack recommended Brumleynet Wireless Networking as a source of wireless networking hardware.


A problem that is endemic to the 802.11b standard is the fact that it shares the 2.4 GHz radio spectrum with other devices, including 2.4 GHz cordless telephones, future Bluetooth devices, and HomeRF devices (a competing wireless networking technology in which Farallon parent Proxim is heavily invested). A journalist friend covering this space said that virtually every company he talked to admitted that they had seen conflicts between different 2.4 GHz services, significantly reducing throughput as packet loss forces retransmissions. In practical terms, if you have a 2.4 GHz cordless phone and use it near an AirPort Base Station, throughput is likely to suffer when you're talking on the phone and using the network at the same time. For more on this, check out Scott Mace's three-part article, "The 2.4 GHz Traffic Jam" at the link below.


Another issue that has arisen is security: most people don't bother to turn on the AirPort Base Station's 40-bit encryption. To show the problem with that, one group at MacHack wrote EtherPEG, a utility that displays all the images travelling through the air on unencrypted wireless links. So, if you're concerned about someone sniffing your traffic - or even just using your Internet connection from the street - be sure to turn on encryption using the AirPort Admin Utility. However, even that may not be sufficient if you have truly sensitive data flowing through your wireless network. A research group in the Computer Science Division of U.C. Berkeley found that 802.11's WEP (Wireless Equivalent Privacy) algorithm was vulnerable to a number of flaws that could be exploited using inexpensive, off-the-shelf equipment. So if you're concerned about industrial espionage (or the more traditional sort), be sure to use additional security measures.

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Finally, as with any technology, things can go wrong, and Apple has posted a variety of articles to the Tech Info Library. If you run into troubles, it's worth a visit.


Public AirPorts -- There's no reason wireless networking must be limited to offices and homes, and we're starting to see public wireless networks popping up all over. For instance, Seattle Wireless aims to create a totally free, Internet-connected community wireless network throughout Seattle. And in Oregon, Ashland Unwired plans to provide high-speed wireless Internet access at local businesses, starting with Starbucks and a bed & breakfast. Numerous other locations are experimenting with public wireless networks as well; some have come up in discussion in TidBITS Talk.


The Ashland Starbucks may be hearing from Starbucks Headquarters at some point, since Starbucks just announced an exclusive deal with MobileStar to provide wireless Internet access in all Starbucks locations in the known universe (well, 2,500 locations by January of 2002, and over 5,000 by January of 2003). In San Francisco, a company called Surf and Sip has started wiring independent coffeehouses and other public spaces.

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The only public space in which I've connected to the Internet wirelessly is Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which enjoys wireless access thanks to a company called Wayport. It was brilliant - while waiting for our plane to leave from Seattle on the way down to Macworld, Jeff Carlson and I were able to connect, get email, and browse the Web. Wayport's service is free for the next few months; like MobileStar and Surf and Sip and other companies in this space, they'll have to come up with a convenient way that people can pay reasonable rates for access time without having to slog through complicated setup ahead of time.


I wouldn't be surprised to see these companies shift their business models and concentrate on charging only the businesses that install Internet connections and make them available via wireless Ethernet. Wireless Internet access could help those businesses attract and retain customers, whereas forcing everyone to pay for monthly accounts or hourly rates seems a more difficult proposition and destroys the fundamental convenience of wireless networking.

Closing the Net -- The future is wireless. Wires are still undeniably useful, but wireless just makes so much more sense for any device that might move around or need to communicate with other nearby devices. I feel sorry for those people who went to the effort of wiring their homes, offices, or schools just before wireless Ethernet became readily available.

One closing thought. Although no one from the PC world will ever say this, Apple deserves thanks from the entire computer industry for AirPort. As with so many other technologies (think about the mouse, 3.5" floppies, CD-ROMs, and on-board Ethernet), Apple may not have invented 802.11b wireless Ethernet, but Apple's endorsement put it on the map. Building AirPort slots into all Macs and dropping prices far below what others were charging may have hastened widespread adoption by several years. At first, PC users who wanted cheap AirPort Base Stations were falling over themselves to make nice with Mac friends, since configuration required an AirPort-capable Mac. And only now, over 18 months after Apple introduced AirPort and the iBook, are PC manufacturers finally building antennas into their laptops to avoid the awkward bulge of today's wireless Ethernet PC Cards. Thanks to Apple's gamble, wireless Ethernet is here today, and it's here to stay.


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