AirPort Wireless Networking

AirPort is an amazing technology that makes wireless communication affordable to own and relatively simple to install and configure. With AirPort, you can quickly and easily set up and manage a wireless network to do the following tasks:

  • Connect to the Net? You can use AirPort to connect to the Internet wirelessly, and you can easily share a single Internet connection among multiple Macs.

  • Connect to a network? You can connect an AirPort-equipped Mac to an existing Ethernet (wired) network.

  • Share a USB printer? You can connect a USB printer directly to an AirPort base station to share that printer with AirPort devices.

  • Connect directly to other AirPort-equipped computers? You can directly network to one or more AirPort-equipped computers. As long as all the computers are set up to use the same AirPort connection, they can communicate with each other up to 150 feet apart. This makes instant, temporary networks fast and easy.

AirPort functionality is provided through the following components:

  • AirPort-ready Macs? If your Mac is AirPort ready, it has built-in antennas that are used to transmit and receive signals to and from the wireless network. It also has a slot in which you can install an AirPort card. The good news is that all modern Macs are AirPort compatible.


    Power Mac G5s have an AirPort antenna port into which you plug an external antenna.

  • AirPort card? To use AirPort, your Mac must have an AirPort card installed in it. There is more good news here too: AirPort Extreme cards cost only about $99, whereas AirPort cards are about $79. Both are simple to install. If you use a PowerMac G5, you also need an external AirPort antenna, which is provided with the Mac.

  • AirPort software? The AirPort software is necessary for Macs to communicate through the AirPort hardware. The software to configure and use an AirPort network is part of the standard Mac OS X installation.

  • AirPort base station? The AirPort base station transmits the signals for the AirPort network. There are two basic types of base stations. The AirPort Extreme hardware access point (HAP) is a dedicated hardware device that contains access points for a modem, USB printer, and an Ethernet network. When you use it for a dial-up connection to the Internet, for example, the AirPort base station's modem is used to connect to the Net. Your Mac communicates to the base station through the AirPort card and antenna. A single AirPort HAP can support multiple computers so you can share an Internet connection among up to 50 computers. You can also configure any AirPort-equipped Mac to act as a base station by using Mac OS X's built-in Internet sharing capabilities.


Functionally, an AirPort HAP and an AirPort-equipped Mac OS X machine sharing its Internet connection are identical. In this chapter, when I use the term base station, it can refer to either means of providing an AirPort network.

The general steps to configure and use an AirPort network are the following:

  1. Install and configure the base station (AirPort HAP or an AirPort-equipped Mac OS X machine).

  2. Install AirPort cards in the machines you want to connect to the AirPort network.

  3. Configure those machines to use the AirPort network.


Although using AirPort to connect to the Internet and to share an Internet account is the focus of this chapter, an AirPort network provides access to all the services of a wired network. For example, computers connected to a wired network via AirPort can print to printers on that network, use file sharing, and so on. If you connect a USB printer to an AirPort Extreme base station, you can share that printer with any AirPort-equipped Mac.

Before getting into the meat of this chapter, there are a few AirPort tidbits you need to understand.

The two flavors of AirPort are AirPort and AirPort Extreme.

AirPort is the original incarnation and offers many wireless benefits. AirPort communicates at 11Mbps and is compatible with wireless devices based on the 802.11b standard.

AirPort Extreme is the newer standard and offers even more benefits. First, is speed. AirPort Extreme communicates at 54Mbps, which is almost five times the speed at which the original AirPort communicates. AirPort Extreme is compatible with devices using the 802.11g Wi-Fi standard. Second, AirPort Extreme can support more computers at the same time than does AirPort. Third, AirPort Extreme enables you to share a USB printer from a hub. Fourth, with AirPort Extreme, you can wirelessly link Base Stations together to expand the range of an AirPort network to cover large areas.

Mac OS X supports both flavors of AirPort, but specific Mac models support either AirPort or AirPort Extreme; in other words, some Macs can support an AirPort card, whereas others support AirPort Extreme cards. The two cards are not interchangeable. To find out which flavor your Mac supports, check its documentation. At press time, all shipping Macs support AirPort Extreme.

Fortunately, even though the hardware for the two standards is different, it is compatible. AirPort machines can connect to AirPort Extreme networks, and vice versa. The primary difference is that AirPort networks are much slower than AirPort Extreme networks are. And, AirPort Extreme base stations offer more features than AirPort base stations do.

Because it is the newer standard, this chapter focuses mostly on AirPort Extreme. I do my best to use the term AirPort Extreme when discussing something that is specific to AirPort Extreme technology or AirPort Standard when referring to the older technology. When I use the term AirPort, I mean to refer to something that is applicable to both technologies.


Because it is based on the 802.11 standards, AirPort is compatible with 802.11 networks and devices. For example, you can connect an AirPort-equipped Mac to any wireless network that supports 802.11b or 802.11g (Extreme only) devices, such as those designed for Windows computers. Similarly, Windows machines equipped with 802.11b or 802.11g devices can also access an AirPort network.

    Part I: Mac OS X: Exploring the Core
    Part III: Mac OS X: Living the Digital Life