Wireless Internet: the Mother’s Day gift that keeps on giving

"tricia, what is this box hooked up to my computer?” my father asked me this week, in the typical all-lowercase e-mail he started sending me after I informed him some years ago that uppercase typing in e-mail was equivalent to shouting.

Dad’s a smart guy, but he and my mother are just old enough to have mostly been left out of the computer revolution. He’s got his own laptop these days, which he uses for his quasi-retired consulting work, and he’s turned into a wiz with scanning photos — as has my mother, with a grandchild to share around these days — but neither of them are what we’d call fully computer literate.

Mom can write a letter with the best of them, being a solid typist from the manual typewriter days and having picked up word processing when I was in high school. Dad hunts and pecks, but he can now send an e-mail, which is something she’s still working on.

She took “Computers for the Terrified” from our own Indian River School District adult-ed course list back in March and has a second-hand desktop computer — but without an Internet connection, those e-mailed photos of her red-haired grandson just aren’t coming right into her lap as promised.

So, while home on an early Mother’s Day visit recently, I fulfilled a promise to her while simultaneously confusing my father: I hooked up their DSL Internet connection to a wireless router — that little box my father was concerned about — so they can both use the Internet and so I didn’t have to drill a new hole through their hardwood floors. (Yeah, I probably would have tried to go through the wall, but I’m about as good with power tools as they are with computers.)

Wireless Internet a boon

I have one of these handy little boxes in my own home, and have for several years now. With a preference for laptop computers, it only made sense to take advantage of the wireless capability built into my computers and make sure I could use my broadband Internet connection whether I was in the living room, the bedroom or outside.

Nowadays, I even use it with my PDA-phone, which has its own Wi-Fi connection. Only thus am I able to safely catch up on the latest headlines and do research for my tech columns while I cook dinner and a toddler creates chaos in the middle of my living room. Bottom line: wireless Internet access is vastly useful.

Now, Dad would like Mom to have access to e-mail, but he’s a little leery of the technology involved. So, I’d made little progress in trying to explain to him what he needed to buy for this project and how it would be hooked up. But $120 and a five-minute trip into the local computer store offered me everything I needed.

First, you have to understand how this wireless Internet thing works.

Whereas a computer might normally be hooked up to a modem — dial-up, cable broadband or DSL — to connect to the Internet, instead we hook up that modem to a router. The router primarily enables multiple devices to share the same Internet connection, but it can also be set up to allow a fully-functioning computer network, in which all the computers on the network can share files from one to the other. In my parents’ case, we just needed the Internet sharing.

A wired router uses typical network cables to connect the various devices on the system to both the Internet and each other. A wireless router, on the other hand, can also make those connections over the air, using “wireless fidelity” or Wi-Fi (also the name of the company that sets the standards for such connection devices) signals.

If you’ve bought a laptop computer in the last handful of years, it likely came with a Wi-Fi antenna built inside of it, as a standard feature. There are also Wi-Fi add-ons for desktop computers and other devices, such as the latest game consoles.

Every few years, the Wi-Fi standard gets upgraded, becoming better and faster. Most devices more than a year or so old use the 802.11b standard, but we’ve progressed now through B to G and onto N.

The good news there is that most newer devices are backward compatible and can operate with the older, slower protocols. So, if you have an old wireless router, it should still work (if more slowly) with your new laptop, and that old laptop will generally work with the cutting-edge router (again, more slowly).

With Dad’s 802.11b-enabled laptop, we could have stuck with a cheap 802.11b wireless router, but they’re increasingly scarce. Instead, I picked up a current-generation 802.11g model from Linksys, which has a good reputation for being compatible with most Wi-Fi devices and broadband modems. I also picked up an 802.11g wireless transmitter from Linksys that hooks right up to the USB port on Mom’s computer.

Linksys also made life easy for me by including a very intuitive, nearly automated, setup disc with the system. Except for one false start getting the Internet to come through for us — resolved with a 60-second phone call to Linksys customer support and a full system restart — it was really something my parents could have done themselves.

The side benefit to this, beyond getting my mother hooked up — finally — to the Internet, was that now I can also use the Internet on my laptop or phone when I’m visiting them. And I can do it without fear that someone else can snoop into my banking transactions by grabbing hold of that Wi-Fi signal.

And here is the main message of this story for those of you who are advanced enough that the wireless Internet thing is a done deal: Secure your networks!

Wireless security a must

When I visited my parents a few years ago, I would turn on my laptop and see four or five wireless networks pop up on the list of available connections. Inevitably, three out of four were unsecured, meaning their owners had not turned on their router’s security features to keep outsiders from using their Internet connection or potentially snooping into the files on all the connected computers.

I’m pleased to report that my parents’ neighbors are apparently a little more savvy these days, with an unsecured network only rarely popping up within range there. But, unfortunately, they were not — and are not — alone in not realizing how potentially dangerous an unsecured wireless network can be.

For most of us these days, our Internet is an unending fount, with no cap on our usage, no additional costs to pay when we use it 24 hours a day or download large files. But if you’re using a broadband connection that does keep track of your use — especially if you’re charged for it — an open wireless network is an invitation to everyone in the neighborhood to use your Internet service and let you pay for it.

Also, the same open networks that are a boon for mobile device users when they’re operated to intentionally provide public access to the Internet not only pose the potential to overwhelm anyone paying for metered bandwidth but can leave the unwary open to having their passwords stolen, bank account information intercepted, private e-mail read and documents purloined.

There are not only concerns about neighbors using your Internet out of convenience and without explicit permission (generally without any damage) — a practice called “piggybacking” — but about ill-intentioned hackers and a practice called “war-driving” in which Wi-Fi equipped drivers search out open networks and record the information, often for publication on the Internet, where it again leaves you vulnerable to the ill-intentioned.

Also, remember that you may not only be dealing with problems of stolen data and other information on your network, but also potentially criminal use of your network for everything from illegal gambling and software piracy to child pornography. Your network connection is your identity in cases where illegal Internet activity comes into play, so avoid letting someone else break the law in your name.

In the United Kingdom, piggybacking is now illegal, no matter what your intention. But U.S. law generally has yet to catch up with wireless network concerns. There have been some arrests in such cases, but most still consider it the responsibility of the network owner to secure their wireless network against such intrusions, unless the intention is to provide public access.

Lock ’em up

So, if you’re not seeing a little padlock icon on your wireless connection when you look at your available connections, now is the time to go into your wireless router settings and lock things up!

It used to be that doing that was as simple as turning on one setting and putting in a 10-digit password. But the Linksys setup I did for my parents included a massively long — and far more secure — key that I could never begin to remember. So write those keys down for future reference. You’ll need them to set up access on the networked computers, too. But once that’s done, you’re basically as secure as a wired network.

Lengthy string of numbers in hand, I quickly set up not only my mother’s Internet connection but also the one on my laptop and phone. That gave access to everyone in the house for e-mail and Internet, without leaving us vulnerable to any stranger who might happen to drive by with a Wi-Fi card. And without putting a hole in those hardwood floors.

Mom’s still working on learning how to send e-mail. But the fact that she’s now one step closer to seeing weekly photos of her grandson is something to warm any mother’s heart — doubly so without worries about her computer being compromised by lax security. And the ease of setting up a wireless network these days is such that this project is one for even the tech novice to consider, for mom, or for themselves.