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Life After AirPort -- New Wireless Base Stations

by James Duncan Davidson
08/09/2001

It's fair to say that wireless networking using 802.11b-based hardware has changed my life.

When cables are removed from the equation, all sorts of computing possibilities appear. I regularly surf the Web from my living room couch and pull down e-mail while enjoying the view from my deck. And 802.11b lets me do it without having to lay wires all over the place. And let's not forget being able to go to conferences and get on the open network just by opening the laptop. You haven't experienced true network bliss till you've gone wireless.

Much to my chagrin, this beautiful wireless world came crashing down around me a few weeks ago. Due to a flaw in the Apple AirPort Base Station Design, my trusty 802.11b access point gave out and left me searching for wires. So devastating was it that the world got to hear all about it in my weblog, "Death of an Airport Base Station." I even tried to fix the access point following instructions I found online, but failed. My soldering skills must have been just too rusty.

Without wireless, I was going nuts. The Ethernet tether to my desktop in my home office was stronger and more oppressive than I remember it from before. I found myself taking my laptop to friends' houses just so I could sit on their couches and surf the Web. I had to fix the situation, and I had to do it fast. It was time to go shopping for a new wireless access point.

Scouting around, I found that the wireless world has evolved quite a bit since I bought my first base station. No longer are you limited to just getting a wireless access point, but you can have them combined with home gateway routers and print servers. I'm always on the lookout for ways to reduce the wired clutter that exists under my desk. Combining multiple devices into one sounded like a excellent idea to me, so I sat down and sketched out what I wanted my new home network to look like. After a few attempts, I drew out the following:

Settling on this diagram gave me the following set of requirements that I was going to look for in a combined gateway router and access point:

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  • Network Address Translation (NAT), allowing me to have all devices share one IP address and to serve as a primary firewall.
  • At least three 100Mbps switched ports, for machines connected by hardwire Ethernet.
  • Full IEEE 802.11b Wireless, for those machines on the wireless Internet.
  • Integrated DHCP server, to manage the internal network address space.

Based on this list, I did quite a bit of researching of the various available products. Of the many available, two caught my eye: the 3Com HomeConnect Home Wireless Gateway (model 3CRWE50194) and the SMC Wireless Barricade (model SMC7004AWBR). Not wanting to spend another day without wireless access, I ordered the 3Com HomeConnect Wireless Gateway from their online Website and had it in my hands the very next day.

3Com HomeConnect Wireless Gateway

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The 3Com HomeConnect comes well packaged with an excellent quick start guide for the networking novice. It was easy to set up the hardware, and the simple Web browser interface made it a snap to set up the router to work with my ISP. The software asked all the right questions for the way my ISP has my WAN connection configured and after a few screens, everything just worked. My client computers could hook up to the Internet. I could surf from my couch again. Life was good.

Whenever you need to manage the gateway, simply pointing a web browser to http://192.168.2.1/ (yes, they tell you this in the instructions that come with the gateway) brings up a clean, well-designed page from which you can perform all the management tasks.


Management tasks are easy from the Web-based interface. (click to enlarge image)

 

The status page is also nicely presented. It gives your current Internet connection status and your ISP settings, and tells you the current status of your internal network.


More to life than beauty -- the interface doesn't always report the status correctly. (click to enlarge image)

 

However, even though the interface is nicely presented, it isn't quite telling the full truth. In the screenshot above, the gateway claims that I have one client connected to the internal network when I actually had two clients connected via the built-in Ethernet ports, and one wireless client connected as well. According to the user manual, the interface is supposed to display a different graphic when wireless clients are connected, but I never saw it.

I also found that the only form of access control given to limit the clients that can connect to the gateway is WEP encryption. There is no way to control clients connecting based on their wireless Ethernet card's MAC (Media Access Control) address.

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