Buffalo's Airstation ISDN

Wi-Fi for the ADSL-less

It sometimes feels a little ironic to me that the state-of-the-art wireless network I have at home is connected to a socket on the wall that can barely outrun a modem, writes Jon Collins of Quocirca.

Believe me, this is not through choice. One of the 'benefits' of living in the heart of rural England is that ye olde branche exchange is unlikely to ever connect enough folk for BT to consider it suitable for an ADSL upgrade, even if we did live within the required distance to benefit from it. Which, along with many thousands of others who have chosen the cornfields over the conurbation, we don't.

OK, it's not the slowest connection in the world, and neither is the 802.11b configuration the most efficient available. The clever device that links the two is a Buffalo Airstation ISDN router, a box which combines the functions of a wireless access point, a hub and an ISDN modem which connects itself to the Internet whenever a connection is required. ISDN offers two phone lines and two data lines (64Kbps each, or a combined 128Kbps), and operates a two-out-of-four-ain't-bad policy.

On the other side of the box, the network equipment is exclusively Buffalo - exclusive largely because when it was bought about two years ago, wireless interoperability was not guaranteed. It is understood that things are better than they were, but better safe than sorry. There are a number of computers at home, of which three qualify as being 'active' - ie. they're not consigned to the loft. One computer is connected to the network via a Buffalo USB wireless adapter. Another - a laptop - does so using an 802.11b PC Card. And let's not forget the Compact Flash wireless card for Little Dell, the PDA. A second desktop and a laser printer are both close enough to the router to merit a wired connection. And, well, it all sort of works.

There are many benefits of this set-up, some planned and some unexpected. The most visible advantage is that, no longer are there wires trailing all over the house. In addition, all the computers can share the same Internet connection without requiring to be configured separately. They can talk to each other, which is highly useful for both simple file exchange, and cleverer things like editing a presentation that is saved on the laptop, by using an application that is run on the faster desktop computer. Back-ups are a theoretical breeze, in that files can be copied from one computer to another for safekeeping, with all the complexity of drag and drop - this is theoretical because one still has to remember to do it. Finally, using printer sharing, anybody can print to any printer, very handy when that inkjet cartridge runs out and there aren't any more in the drawer.

Clearly, a number of these benefits are more down to the 'networking' and less to the 'wireless', but the latter has certainly made it more convenient to network the computers together. Without wireless, we would still be attempting a hotchpotch of infrared, USB, floppy and CD copying back and forth.

There are some problems, but nothing is particularly insurmountable. The working range of the Compact Flash PocketPC card is, well, hopeless - probably about five paces at best. This might be half useful if the router was in the middle of the house, but it's in the bottom corner. Of course, I could buy a wireless repeater or a higher power aerial, but for now it's not the end of the world. Another downer is the speed of data transmission - it's, well, slow. Too slow, in fact, to transfer any large amount of data in a reasonable time, particularly if there's someone else contending for the packet space. That's a bit of a glib statement, and I have a 802.11b here, admittedly; but even with 802.11g, which boasts an order of magnitude speed improvement, don't expect to be pumping a DVD's worth of material from one computer to another (say) without leaving the computers on overnight.

The Buffalo range itself - let's just say its not for the faint-hearted. Things have improved on the manufacturer's Web site since I first started going there, but the PC Card driver is offered without warranty or support - hardly a motivating factor. As far as I can tell, this driver is the same version that was available two years ago, so I would have hoped they'd have things worked out by now. Also, Buffalo seems to be in denial that they ever made an ISDN box, which makes me just a tad concerned when I have one right next to me. The line doesn't always drop when it should, and the laptop will hang if I try to suspend it with the wireless card inserted, but still, everything works, near as dammit.

For a home network sharing Internet access, or even for a small business sharing resources with the household, a wireless network offers a number of advantages. Costs are falling all the time, and the administrative overhead is quite small - even Buffalo ships a serviceable configuration wizard which takes the back-work out of the installation.

For home wireless, I know that my paltry installation is just the beginning, and there is plenty of progress being made in wireless technologies for the home. Perhaps the real advantages will come when these new device types start to be plugged in, such as the Linksys media converter, which would let me watch photo slide shows on my TV, or listen to MP3s through my stereo. As wireless technologies improve, we can expect to see new devices that take advantage of the higher speeds - no doubt Internet-linked for a wide range of new services. Maybe, one day they might even be available to the rural information-poor! Sorry, getting ahead of myself there, but the point is that the drive towards wireless as a home infrastructure is well underway. What's the problem there? None you might say, unless you're an early adopter and take some dubious pleasure in working through the inevitable teething troubles. Well, maybe there is one small problem: what's the company going to think?

Thus far, firms have equipped their teleworking staff based on the principle that few people have a computer at home already, and if they do it will be standalone. When the home is a network, however, this is no longer the case. While the obvious answer might be to restrict the use of the office computer on the home network, there are certain weaknesses in this strategy. Such as: how is the office laptop going to connect to the office? If the answer is, via the ADSL link, then question two becomes, 'what, the one that's already configured for the kids?'

Practically, it becomes very difficult to separate the corporate equipment from the home equipment. This raises issues of responsibility and control - for example, how to determine why a connection is not working when it should, not to mention interoperability ('It all worked fine until I plugged my laptop in - all I did was follow their instructions') and cost ('Hey, kids, the company's paying for the Broadband!'). Last but a gapingly not least is security. Enterprises already complain about the security issues raised by not knowing who has plugged what into the corporate network - what happens when that network extends (via a nice, secure VPN link, no doubt) to the uncharted territories of the home wireless network with high speed Internet access?

Now, before vendors start emailing their product descriptions, let's acknowledge that there are a number of mechanisms for protecting that trusty laptop. Personal firewall software from the likes of Symantec and McAfee, for example, or the hardware equivalent from Linksys, plug one gap. The real issue is not the one which can be solved with technology, but the one that requires a policy solution, namely explaining to employees what they can and cannot do with their corporate assets when working from home. Unfortunately, many organisations treat management and security policy as a one-shot operation, which hasn't included the homes of employees in its scope. Perhaps it's time that it did. Equally clearly, there are a whole number of convergence issues that are yet to be addressed by IT vendors or end-user businesses alike.

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