RealTime IT News

Ask the Wi-Fi Guru, Episode XXIII

Our monthly Q&A series offers advice to those seeking help with home or small business WLANs. This month our guru considers how to implement load balancing features on your home LAN, fix a problem with sites that don't load over a particular piece of gear and avoid finding yourself signed on to a neighbor's non-secure network.

Now that the holiday hangover has (hopefully) worn off, we must work to make 2010 as futuristic a year as it sounds. Who's on hovercraft duty? Where's my robot butler? How do we make cars play that bloop-bloop-bloop sound like on the Jetsons?

If coverage from this year's Consumer Electronics Show is any indication, this year's big push in wireless is with cellular communications. With 3G and now 4G (WiMax) coverage increasingly spreading, the major wireless growth area is in mobility. In fact, several companies including Netgear and Sprint have introduced wireless routers that can receive cellular broadband and share via 802.11n Wi-Fi.

With so many sources of broadband becoming available, more people may be wondering about combining them, much like the writer of our new year's first question:

How Do I Connect to More Than One Network from the Same Laptop?

Q: I need to connect simultaneously to several (3-4) networks from the same laptop with one WiFi device, how (if?) can this be done? – Sahnip

A:  Increasingly, people have more than one broadband pipe. You might, for example, have cable broadband and 3G. Or cable and DSL. Or two cable connections. Or two DSL connections. Or multiple wireless networks. And so on.

Let's first consider that last example­­—multiple wireless networks. Suppose your laptop can see "network1" and "network2". Can you connect to both?

If your laptop has only one wireless adapter, then no. Most laptops today include a built-in wireless adapter. Since this adapter has only one radio, it can only connect to one wireless network at a time. But USB wireless adapters are now very cheap—suppose you plugged one, or even two, into your laptop. It will now have multiple wireless adapters, and each one could connect to a different wireless network.

But suppose you do connect to several wireless networks at the same time—then what? Can you combine them all to increase your speed and download files in a fraction of the time? The answer is maybe, sort of, and not exactly.

It is not possible to simply "combine" multiple broadband connections to make one big fat pipe. There are special configurations that can "team" or "bond" connections but these are rare, requiring multiple connections to the same ISP, and cooperation from that ISP. The best you can do with multiple arbitrary networks is to create a "load balancing" configuration.

In a load balancing configuration, routing software will choose which broadband connection to use to route a stream of network activity. This can effectively speed up your online access because you can spread applications across multiple pipes—for example, a large file download through one broadband connection, and Web surfing or VoIP through another.

In this sense, no single network activity is sped up by having multiple connections, but when multitasking activities, overall performance can improve. Windows 7 users will enjoy automatic load balancing when two or more broadband connections are present. For earlier versions of Windows, there are alternative ways to configure load balancing. Another option is to use third-party software like Kerio Winroute Firewall which including its own load balancing.

Why Can't I Load Some Sites Using My Wi-Fi Router?

Q: Some sites won't load using my wireless router. When I try to go to the same sites hard wired to my DSL modem, they load correctly. Do I need to secure my router? My router is currently setup to not broadcast my SSID and has no WEP security. Do I need to secure my router to visit some sites and make purchases? – Neil

A: Although it isn't entirely clear from the information supplied, I wonder if perhaps secure (HTTPS) Web sites are not loading via the wireless connection. Note that "security" on Web sites and security on your router are not related to each other. Whether or not your router has security enabled (to prevent others nearby from interception your connection) should have no bearing on your ability to visit secure Web sites.

If the problem is that secure Web sites won't load, I wonder if the cause is related to the Windows firewall. When your DSL modem is directly connected to your PC, it is using your wired adapter. When you connect to your wireless router, your PC is using your wireless adapter. Windows can apply its firewall rules separately for each adapter, so for example, it is possible that your firewall is disabled for your wired adapter but enabled for your wireless adapter. To experience your problem, this would also require that your firewall block port 443 (used for secure Web sites), which is not a typical configuration. But anything's possible.

To diagnose, I would first globally (but temporarily!) disable your Windows firewall, which you can do through the Windows Security Center. If your wireless problem goes away, then you'll need to poke around the firewall configuration to be sure that it is not blocking port 443 (HTTPS).

On a side note, be aware that hiding your SSID is not a meaningful form of wireless security—many wireless snooping tools can sniff out your SSID whether you hide it or not.

How Do I Avoid Connecting to My Neighbor's Network?

Q: I have my home network using WPA.  Neighbors apparently have networks unprotected.  Infrequently, my connection to my network stops and the computer connects to neighbors for no apparent reason, and I must then disconnect from the neighbor's network and reconnect to mine.  This also happens at my daughter's house in another state.  Any way to prevent this? I use Vista. – David

A: When you connect to a wireless network, Windows "remembers" this network and in the future, will try to connect to it again if within range. When multiple networks are in range, Windows will typically connect to the strongest. Sometimes, variations in signal strength can cause Windows to "hop" to another network—which can be very annoying if you don't want to leave the network you're on.

In Vista's "Networks and Sharing Center" control panel, click on "Manage Wireless Networks" to view all the wireless networks that are currently "remembered". Right-click on a neighbor's network and choose "Properties" from the context menu. Here, you can disable "Connect automatically when this network is range". In the future, Vista should no longer hop to this network.

Although these instructions are specific to Vista, you can apply the same principle to other versions of Windows.