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BT Openworld/Linksys Wireless Access ADSL Modem Review

Introduction

This review is a slight diversion from our usual fare, it will cover the BT Openworld/Linksys 802.11b wireless hardware. BT Openworld has had a partnership with Linksys for some time now and sell packs of 802.11b kit to users of both their own ADSL service and anyone else who likes their prices. The hardware in this review whilst sold by BT Openworld will work with any of the ADSL Service Providers. As well as reviewing the hardware the aim is to also look at how wireless hardware can integrate into the ADSL environment. Hopefully at the end of the article you may be a bit wiser as to what hardware will work for you.

When looking at 802.11b wireless kit you will see Wi-Fi frequently mentioned, this is just a slightly more memorable name for 802.11b and in theory any kit marked as Wi-Fi compatible should work with any other make of Wi-Fi kit.

For the review 3 pieces of hardware are under consideration, Linksys WAP11 Access Point, Linksys WUSB11 Wireless USB Network Adapter and Linksys PCMCIA Wireless V2.5 Laptop card.

Wi-Fi, 802.11b and ADSL - How do they fit together?

You have just bought an ADSL modem and are getting to grips with that and then you get a brain wave, "Why don't I share this with my other computer?". Then the problems start. Do I run Ethernet cables through the house? Often this looks untidy and prone to damage. Or do I use wireless, but how do I do it? If this is you, read on.

The BT Openworld/Linksys website itself gives some ideas how it all slots together. Unfortunately they only tackle the problem from the viewpoint of their own hardware options. Nowadays with the profusion of differnet ADSL options it can be very complex or just plain confusing, e.g. 1 IP address or blocks of IP address's, PCI/USB modems and ADSL modem/routers. There are two main methods to consider:

1. AD-HOC, Peer to Peer Mode

This mode is ideal for users with a PCI or USB ADSL modem. It uses only 802.11b network cards which can be setup to talk to each other directly, no access point is required.

The hard work of sharing the Internet connection is done by one computer which must run some Internet Connection Sharing software, e.g. Microsoft Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) which is included in Windows 98SE and later versions. This computer running the sharing software becomes the server for your wireless network and for any computer to gain access to the Internet this server computer must be switched on.

2. Infrastructure Mode

This is the preferred mode for users with an ADSL modem/router which presents the Internet link as a permanent Ethernet connection to a network of one or more computers. The actual work of powering the wireless network is carried out by a Wireless Access Point (e.g. Linksys WAP11) or a Wireless Router (e.g. Linksys BEFW11S4).

A wireless access point is not necessarily a wireless router, but it can be. What is the difference?

Wireless Access Point

A Wireless Access Point (WAP) is generally connected to a LAN and provides transparent access between the LAN and a wireless network, sometimes referred to as a wireless bridge. The Linksys WAP11 fits into this category. For users with a single IP address from their ISP, your ADSL modem/router is normally providing a NAT service for your Ethernet LAN. The WAP11 simply extends this NAT service onto your wireless LAN.

For users with a multiple IP service from their ISP, you will only be able to attach as many computers to the Wireless network as IP addresses you have left, e.g. if have an 8 IP block, 6 are available for use (the other two are used for network and broadcast), generally one is used by the ADSL modem/router and 5 are available for computers. So any combination of computers on the Ethernet and Wireless network is possible so long as a total of five is not exceeded. If you need more computers on the wireless segment then a wireless router is a better option.

Wireless Router

The wireless router features some form of NAT routing and can be useful to users with a block of static IP addresses, who do not want the wireless network to use external IP addresses. Some people also prefer to hide the Ethernet LAN from the Wireless LAN and the router component should allow this.

The wireless routers like the Linksys BEFW11S4 are also ideal for users with a cable modem service as they provide NAT to a wired LAN in addition to providing wireless service.

Configuring the Linksys Hardware

BT Openworld make life easy for people by including a double sided A4 instruction leaflet with the hardware. There is the obligatory PDF manual on the driver CD. The sequence for setting up the hardware is short and straightforward:

  1. Which Wireless Network Mode Should I Use? Ad-Hoc or Infrastructure

  2. For Infrastructure mode, set up the WAP11 Wireless Access Point, via USB or Ethernet

  3. For Ad-Hoc mode, install and connect the Wireless network card to the 'server' computer and setup Internet Connection Sharing (ICS)

  4. Install and connect the other Wireless Adaptors

  5. Verify your connection, check the wireless icon in the system tray.

The quick setup guide contains purely that information. The more complex subjects such as ICS are covered by the manual on the CD. The documentation and software supplied for the review covered Windows 98, ME and 2000. There was no specific mention of XP. The setup for XP doesn't really vary from other Windows systems, although you may wish to check http://www.linksys.com for the latest driver software. The Windows XP built-in wireless support did not fully work with the original Linksys drivers. The corrective measure involved downloading 4MB update over the wireless link and XP was happy again. Without the driver update, XP was claiming that the wireless net was not connected, when it was.

The configuration used during the review was the Infrastructure mode, but in a short test the Linksys kit worked fine in Ad-Hoc mode. Configuring the WAP11 is pretty straight forward, it comes with a USB lead to connect to your computer and software to drive it over the USB system. This is perhaps the simplest configuration and at its lowest level all you have to do is setup the Wireless security. The hardware supports both 40-bit and 128-bit WEP encryption which does work, and with the growth of wireless networks it is recommended you use WEP. Without WEP it is all too easy for people to 'borrow' your Internet connection - some will contend that WEP itself isn't good enough, but for most home users it provides more than enough security.


USB Type B socket for configuration on WAP11 Access Point

The WAP11 also supports the SNMP protocol for its configuration and comes with an SNMP configuration client, which is useful if you have a computer that does not have USB support. The two pieces of client software are identical in how you use them, the difference is just how they talk to the WAP11. For the SNMP client to work the computer and WAP11 must be on the same IP range, to change the IP from its default you will either need to use the USB lead or change a computers IP address so that it can see the WAP11. In fact if you do not use the SNMP configuration then no changes are needed to the TCP/IP configuration of the WAP11 since it simply acts as a bridge between your ADSL modem/router and the Wireless network cards.

Configuring the USB and PCMCIA Wireless Network cards is just as easy as putting a normal Ethernet card into a computer. Install the driver software for each piece of hardware and then plug the hardware in - the operating systems should pick up the new hardware and configure them. You will have to configure the details like the Service Set Identifier (name of your wireless LAN) and any WEP encryption keys. By default both adapters switch to automatic IP assignment so if you have DHCP switched on your ADSL modem/router they should pick up an IP address, subnet mask, gateway and DNS IP address(es) automatically. If you have a multiple IP service you will have to set the IP addressing up manually.

The PCMCIA and USB adapters include a configuration utility which you will have use in order to configure the security on each wireless network card. This utility also provides a useful signal strength and link quality monitor. With the USB adapter and the signal strength monitor, it is easy to place the adapter to obtain optimum network speeds. Using a PCMCIA card it is somewhat harder as the Linksys cards do not have a connector to add an antenna, which may limit your range.

Security

When you are broadcasting your Internet connection it is wise to make it safe, this means carrying out several things. As mentioned previously, the Linksys kit supports both 40-bit and 128-bit WEP security modes. 128 bit keys are considered sufficient for most people. Setting up the security can be confusing and the temptation is not to bother when it doesn't work for the first time.

The screenshot above shows the Security configuration on the Access Point, simply think of a unique passphrase, the example used is a highly insecure one as it is a simple name and could be easily guessed. Like all passwords a combination of odd words and letters is best. Once you have a pass phrase hit the button to its right and it will generate all four keys for you - these will be hard to remember, so write them down for when setting up the security for the other computers.

Performance

The configuration was almost a walk in the park compared to setting up your first ADSL modem/router, the only sticky point is setting up the WEP, getting a single character or digit wrong can make this extremely frustrating.

In actual use I found that when in the same room as the access point I was getting a constant 85% link quality from a 100% signal, but it seems that this doesn't really go that far. Moving 30 feet to the other end of the flat - 2 door ways and if the signal is a straight line via 3 double brick walls then the Linksys hardware is down to a marginal or poor signal. Interestingly with some other 802.11b kit, both the Lancom MC-11 Airlancer PCMCIA cards and an ORiNOCO PCI card, I was able to get a good signal quality back and stream video smoothly, where with the Linksys V2.5 PCMCIA card the video would have a tendency to stutter.

Looking at raw performance measures, the ADSLGuide Speed Test was consistently slower on the Linksys cards, generally around 250-300kbps, whereas an Ethernet PC was pulling down 450kbps and upwards. The Lancom card would be in the 400-450kbps range in the same location on the laptop - both of these are with a 11Mbps link over the wireless segment.

For online gamers the lack of bandwidth may not be a problem, pings of 2-5ms to my ADSL modem/routers internal interface are normal and only start to get worse once I hit a poor signal level. To this end Linksys is catering to the gaming market with the WET11 product which links Macs, PCs, Xbox, Playstation 2 and in fact any Ethernet capable machine to a Wireless network and without the need for drivers.

Verdict

Wireless networking is a great addition to the freedom that ADSL can provide, as it means rather than hiding in the spare bedroom or dining room, the computer can easily live in the family room of a house. If you have children this makes it easier to keep an eye on their Internet use. For people with laptops and reasonable batteries it also means it is possible to use the Internet precisely where you want to, and even spend an afternoon working in the garden.

The packages BT Openworld provide are fairly standard, the hardware itself is nothing special, the products offered do fit into what most people want to do and the instructions are most welcome. After trying to cope with previous manuals that are written for a generic worldwide audience, UK specific manuals make life easier for beginners.

The WAP11 worked flawlessly and seems to have a good range. I am not so impressed with the PCMCIA v2.5 cards, they are fine in terms of software stability, but it would appear in terms of range, other manufacturers have better kit. One rule of buying wireless hardware is that if you are going to be using it through several sturdy walls or over a longer open range do not trust the specifications from the manufacturer and check whether you can return the kit if its range is to short. Some wireless hardware supports extra antenna, and I'd like to see this added to the Linksys range. This means you can use devices like a laptop in the most comfortable position without perching it in odd places just to obtain reception. One annoyance is that Wireless hardware manufacturers quote figures for signal ranges that are unrealistic in real life situations.

The USB adapter proved to be one of the pieces of hardware that worked on my old Intel 440 BX system with Windows 98, but it did not prove to be 100% reliable - it would require the occasional unplug of the USB device to breathe life back into it. The PCMCIA card under Windows 2000 and the USB adapter under XP both proved to be very stable.

The cost of 802.11b kit is falling rapidly and will continue to do so now that 802.11a higher speed networks are appearing. Today's pricing is rapidly moving into reach for many computers users.


Prices: £107.66 – Linksys WAP11-BT Wireless Access Point
£60.85 - Linksys WUSB11-BT Wireless USB Desktop Adapter
£60.85 - Linksys WPC11-BT Wireless Laptop Card
Prices listed above are excluding postage and VAT.
 
Links: http://www.linksys.com/btopensales
 

Andrew Ferguson
andrew@thinkbroadband.com

The contents of this review should not be relied upon in making a purchasing decision—You should always discuss your requirements with your service provider and hardware supplier.