Computer networks have traditionally been Ethernet networks, which use Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP) cables to wire up all the computers participating in a network. However, as users carry portable computers around (or away from) the office and home, common applications such as email, web browsers, and instant messenger demand network access. Short-range wireless networks can meet the demand for network access without the need for cabling in every place someone might use a computer.
Educational institutions are taking a lead in the adoption of wireless networks, particularly in the classroom environment where students are equipped with a notebook computer and need to move from classroom to classroom while maintaining access to the network. Another area where wireless networking is rapidly gaining ground is among home users. As computers get cheaper and more powerful, it is not uncommon for people to have several computers at home. Wiring up the home is usually undesirable, since it involves costly cable-laying and often destroys the aesthetics of the house. With a wireless network, home users can link up all the computers in the house at an affordable price and without laying a single cable.
Behind the conveniences of accessing the network wirelessly is the IEEE 802.11 standard, a physical layer protocol and a data link layer protocol for wireless communication using radio waves. In this chapter, I lay the foundation for understanding and using a wireless network, so that you can learn how to set up and configure your Windows XP computer for wireless access.