Setting up a WiFi network - the hard part is judging advice

Advice you can trust may not come from a newspaper

I have, in the past, been critical of computer articles in the newspapers I regularly read, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Often I've warned that you don't read PC Magazine for mutual fund advice and you shouldn't read the Wall Street Journal for computer advice. Yet, the reporters in these newspapers are significantly more technically qualified than the Orlando Sentinel.

Today, I'm in south Florida, where the Sun Sentinel is the local paper. They reprinted an article by Etan Horowitz (no relation), Set up a home wireless network, that originally appeared last month in the Orlando Sentinel.

The article contains a number of technical inaccuracies, which I'll discuss below and well as some important omissions. The hardest part of technology may very well be learning what advice to trust.

Belkin

The article says "Most new laptop and desktop computers have built-in wireless networking..." New desktop computers with built-in wireless networking? Not the ones I've seen.

It warns that "...if you are using an old computer you may have to buy a wireless network adapter." True enough, but they come in multiple form factors (PC card, Express card, PCI and USB) an important point that is not mentioned.

It says that "..a printer may ... require a wireless networking adapter."

Networking a printer that does not do networking on its own, requires a print server. As far as I know, there is no such thing as a wireless networking adapter for a printer. And the print server does not need wireless networking at all, a wired/Ethernet print server can connect to a router and make any printer available to a WiFi based laptop computer.

As for the initial router configuration, the article says "... follow the instructions that came with your router and use the installation CD. If you have a desktop computer that will always be in the same room as your modem or router, run the CD on that computer. Otherwise run the CD on your newest computer."

Newest computer? I can't even guess where this came from. Initial router configuration should be done using an Ethernet connection and any computer that can read CDs and has an Ethernet port will do.

Ethernet came up again in the discussion of adding a password to a WiFi network that doesn't have one. The article says "If you aren't prompted to do this while setting up your network, you'll need to connect a computer to your router via an Ethernet cable ..."

Ethernet is not required. You can connect to the router using the wireless network and make changes to the router this way, including adding or changing the password for the WiFi network. Most likely, after adding/changing the password, the router will re-start itself and you'll have to connect to the wireless network again, using the new password.

Connecting directly to the router requires knowing its IP address. If you don't know it, the article suggests a Google search for the default IP address used by the manufacturer of the router. This is not the best approach. For one, default IP addresses may change over time. For another, your router may not be using the factory default IP address. Your computer always knows the IP address of the router, any computer running TCP/IP knows this. In Windows, open a command prompt and type "ipconfig". The IP address of your router is referred to in the output as the "Default Gateway".

Before attempting to connect to a wireless network, the article warns that "you'll have to make sure that the computer's wireless connection is turned on or that your adapter has been installed and set up."

First of all, that's an "and" not an "or". If either of those conditions are not met, the computer won't connect to any wireless network. And just what was meant by a wireless network connection being turned on? It could refer to the switch on the outside of the laptop computer that controls the wireless radio. It might refer to the definition of the wireless network being enabled rather than disabled. It might refer to a host of things.

The instructions for connecting to an existing wireless network are not the most useful. Quoting: "On Windows computers, look in the Control Panel to enable wireless connectivity and search for available networks."

If you get as far as trying to connect to a wireless network, the article says "You will be asked to choose the type of security setting (WEP, WPA etc) and enter the network key." Windows XP users that let Windows control the WiFi connection are not asked to chose the type of security. Windows is smart enough to figure out the type of security being used all by itself. And, an article targeted at a general audience has to point out that "network key" means "WiFi password".

Omissions

The article left out a number of important issues.

The Sun Sentinel version of the story says nothing about choosing WEP, WPA or WPA2 when configuring a new network. It turns out the Sun Sentinel removed this sentence from the original story: "There are several levels of security you can add to your network, but one of the most basic is to choose a security setting such as "WEP" or "WPA" and generate network keys. If possible, use WPA."

Even with this sentence, however, WPA is not at all secure if you chose a short password or use a word in the dictionary. When it comes to WPA, you should think in terms of pass sentence rather than password. The recommendation is to use at least a 20 character password. Steve Gibson offers great 64 character passwords.

Many people share a single broadband Internet connection but don't need to share files between their computers. If that's the case for you, you're much better off turning off File and Printer sharing in the definition of the wireless network and/or the wired network connection.

The article doesn't mention changing the default password for the router itself. This has nothing to do with the WiFi network, instead it controls all access to the router for the purpose of making configuration changes. I blogged about this in March, see Defending your router, and your identity, with a password change .

Finally, the article didn't even include the word firewall. Discussing wireless networking without mentioning firewalls borders on malpractice.

If you are in south Florida, you may want to complain to the newspapers. Otherwise, you'll get more of the same.

Note: One of the earliest postings I wrote on this blog, back in July 2007, was about steps to take in preparation for networking failures. See The blinking lights on a router are talking to you .

See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.

About the author

    Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

    He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.

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