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What About Wireless?

What is this 'wireless' thing we keep hearing about? My TV remote doesn't use wires and I have been opening my car for years without a key. What about cordless phones, cell phones, those doors that open as you walk up to the supermarket door, my w...


December 1, 2004
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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What is this ‘wireless’ thing we keep hearing about? My TV remote doesn’t use wires and I have been opening my car for years without a key. What about cordless phones, cell phones, those doors that open as you walk up to the supermarket door, my wireless mouse and my buddy’s Blackberry? All of these are wireless and although some of the technologies are similar, they are generally quite different. There are two broad classes: IR (Infra Red) and radio. Both are invisible and work at a distance, but IR is strictly short range, line-of-sight communication, while radio can have a range from a few metres to hundreds of metres.

TV remotes, most handheld computers (Palms) and some wireless computer accessories use IR. As it is strictly line-of-sight, it is somewhat limited by the need for an unobstructed path, e.g.., your TV remote will not work if it cannot “see” the unit being controlled. It is also subject to interference from external sources, for example, sunshine will overload the sensor. IR is somewhat falling out of favour for everything except TV remotes.

Radio-based wireless technology has several classes: cellular networks used by cell phones, blackberries and some handheld computers; Wi-Fi used for wireless networks; and Bluetooth for wirelessly connecting nearby electronics. Each of these has a niche, which often overlap, but are designed to fulfill different functions.

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Cellular: This is a radio-based network that was originally designed to allow for wireless telephone use. Now, it can be used for receiving email via a cellular-enabled device such as a Blackberry, Treo or similar unit. It also allows web browsing, via WAP or Wireless Application Protocol. Certain websites are set up to allow access via a mobile device, taking into account the slower rate of data transmission and the smaller screen size. This is normally for a few specialized uses, not for the broad range of websites available on the Internet. Although cellular radio is not very long range, it gives that illusion by the large network of transmitters, each covering a particular area (or cell) which ‘hand over’ the signal to the next node as you leave one area and enter the next. Cellular has come a long way from the large clunky phones of 15 years ago. Now you can browse the web, take and transmit photos and (coming soon) view video or TV — as well as make phone calls, of course.

Bluetooth: Named for King Harold Bluetooth, the 10th century Danish king who united much of Denmark. This is radio connectivity, designed to work over short ranges and consume less power. It is thus more suitable for small devices such as computer mice, handheld computers, headsets and cell phones. However, it is also suitable for any device requiring short range connectivity. This includes any of the common devices you would see around your office, such as printers or keyboards. Bluetooth was conceived as a method of eliminating the tangle of cables seen in the proximity of any electronic device, with a range up to about 10m. Unfortunately, it has not been picked up by as many manufacturers as could have been, though this may change yet. I would certainly like to eliminate some of the wires in my office!

Wi-Fi: Also known as WLAN, 802.11b or 802.11g, the abbreviation means Wireless Fidelity. It is a method of transmitting large amounts of data wirelessly and is commonly used for wireless connectivity between computers, computer networks and the Internet. It has the highest rate of data transmission, up to 54Mbps — for comparison, a high speed cable connection works at 1Mbps, at best. A Wi-Fi connection allows you to exchange information between computers on a network, print to a printer connected to another computer and share a single Internet connection between multiple computers. The range of a Wi-Fi router is much longer than Bluetooth, typically 30 to 50m in an office environment and to 300m in the open. This means you can carry your laptop with you around the office, down the hall for a meeting or even up to the administration buildings at the front gate — and still have contact with your network and the internet.

Wi-Fi is also the means by which Internet Cafs, airport lounges and hotels offer wireless Internet connectivity. These locations have one or more wireless providers who may charge a fee, by the hour, day, month or even year. Once the fee is paid, you can access the Internet just as you would at home or in your office. Some areas, such as a few hotels and airport lounges, offer free access.

Security: You use Wi-Fi to access networks and the Internet wirelessly; your PDA uses Bluetooth to tell your cell phone which number to dial; and you use your wireless headset to have a conversation via your cell phone with a colleague half a world away. All with not a wire in sight! But if you can access all of that wirelessly, can someone else access your electronics in the same fashion — without your knowledge? Yes! But there are things you can do about it.

Just as you can access networks and the Internet via Wi-Fi, others may be able to access your computer. This could be similar to someone accessing your computer from the Internet. Just as you have (or should have!) a firewall on your computer to prevent people from accessing your computer from the Internet, you should have security coding on your Wi-Fi system to prevent unauthorized access. In addition, you can set your computer to allow only certain files or folders to be accessed from the network. This can be handy if you need to access information on your computer from elsewhere on the mill’s network, but want to prevent others from seeing all your files.

There is a technique called ‘Bluejacking’ in which someone can access your phone or PDA via an active Bluetooth connection. This can be as harmless as a rude message or as sinister as unauthorized accessing of your supposedly secure information. The answer to this is to simply turn off your Bluetooth connection when it is not in use. There are other security precautions as well, which can be determined from your particular device’s documentation.

Any new technology brings concerns as well conveniences. Although your Wi-Fi network may allow more efficient work and access to your information wherever you are in the mill, you need to take care that you have not just given access to your sensitive internal information to anyone with a Wi-Fi equipped computer on the street near your mill.

If you have anything to add or would like to suggest another topic, please contact the author. Dan Davies is the application manager at Degussa Canada in bleaching and water chemicals. He can be reached at dan.davies@degussa.com