- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2002

Steve Gould, a Gaithersburg resident, says it isn't unusual for his home's four computers to be hooked up to the Internet at the same time. That might have sounded excessive a few years back, but with computer users' increasing reliance on the World Wide Web, such scenarios aren't far-fetched.
Good thing Mr. Gould linked all his computers for shared Internet access.
That way, he needs only one connection to the Internet to serve his four computers and one laptop.
Mr. Gould's arrangement is a version of networking connecting a bank of computers together to allow for shared Internet access, file sharing and printer access, among other uses. The linked systems also can pave the way for some competitive gaming between family members in different rooms of the house.
Networking isn't just for business computers anymore.
Such interlocking systems don't demand a multitude of snaking cables crisscrossing through the house. Wireless systems can align computers using the same frequencies found in cordless telephones, 2.4 gigahertz.
That costs about double the price of a conventionally wired network, and the systems invite problems of their own.
Another option is for homeowners to leverage their existing phone lines to connect their computers by a method known as HomePNA (Home Phone Networking Alliance), a consortium of networking technology firms).
Such systems are less expensive than other networking modes and can be used while the phone lines are being used for calls. The system requires a phone jack near each computer on the network, though, and is much slower than wired connections.
HomePNA allows for phone wires to carry computer and voice data simultaneously on separate frequencies, a process known as frequency division multiplexing (FDM).
A kit to set up two computers together via HomePNA costs about $100, and to add more computers to the system requires buying either PCI (peripheral component interconnect) cards ($50) or USB (universal serial bus) adapters ($80).
Internet use appears to be the driving force behind the need to network, computer retailers say.
Two-thirds of homes with broadband Internet access, a faster connection mode than using phone lines, have more than one computer networked, according to Consumer Reports.
Broadband connections, such as cable modem lines that provide a speedier way to hook up to the Internet than by using phone lines, allow for multiple computers to hook up to a single line without losing significant download speed. Doing so means a family just has to pay for one Internet connection, which costs $35 to $50 a month.
Wired, or Ethernet, systems offer faster, more reliable download speeds than wireless systems, carrying more than 100 Mbps (megabits per second).
Both systems require routers, devices with built-in processors that serve as the brain linking all the computers and the Internet access point. Wired routers (about $80 to start) cost much less than their wireless counterparts (about $140).
Computers tie into a wired system via Ethernet cables (about $12 for a 14-foot cable) and an Ethernet card ($20) installed on the computer itself.
Wireless systems bypass the cost for cables, but they require wireless adapters to be plugged into the computers. The two main wireless adapters are USB wireless adapters and PCI cards, prices of which vary up to $90.
Mr. Gould, 58, says his family's dependence on the Internet made him seek out the wireless solution.
"My kids don't do a school project without using the Internet," he says.
The logistics of his house made stretching cables throughout the rooms impossible.
"The only reasonable way to go is wireless. It's been amazing," says Mr. Gould, who sometimes takes his laptop computer onto his patio or anywhere up to about 50 yards from the house.
Such systems aren't foolproof, no matter how liberating the lack of cables may seem.
If a network doesn't use any security measures, other computer users may be able to tap into the system. Mr. Gould suspects many people with wireless systems fail to take such precautionary measures.
"We actually put a laptop in our van, and we could stop near several people's houses and log on the Internet," says Mr. Gould, although he is quick to point out that he couldn't access their computers, just their Web access.
Dwight Steen, owner of Computer Renaissance in Alexandria, says routers come equipped with built-in security systems. Typically, though, such systems must be set up by the computer user before they are effective.
"Most people don't know about this," he says. "Once a system works, they don't want to touch it."
Installation of networking setups are "the number one service call we get now, more so than a broken-down computer," Mr. Steen says.
He agrees that the Internet's continued growth is fueling the networking boom, particularly over the past six months.
Wireless systems may appear superior to a mass of cables, but not everyone is sold on their benefits, says Mike Jahanbin, regional marketing director for Computers Etc. in Potomac.
"More people originally prefer the wireless," Mr. Jahanbin says. Once the systems are installed in their homes, though, they often change their minds.
"Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't," he says of the technology.
He cites signal inconsistencies and problems in homes with many metal surfaces, which can deflect the waves and contribute to poor wireless connections.
Mr. Steen adds that some homes are so large that a computer in the basement might not receive signals if the router is on the top floor.
One way to get around that is to make sure the router is situated in the middle of the home, if feasible.
The frequencies used in wireless systems also can be affected by aluminum siding, baby scanners and microwave ovens, says Max Anis, owner of the Kensington network consulting firm D.C. Net Inc.
Some wireless systems, though, allow for the frequency levels to be tweaked to avoid such conflicts.
That doesn't dissuade some from trying wireless on for size, especially because the various manufacturers make hooking up the systems relatively painless for savvy computer buyers.
"They want to feel that experience of moving around using wireless, but security may be a big issue for them," he says.
Security is on the lips of many shopping for networking products, Mr. Jahanbin says.
"Most people are concerned about security 'Are they going to get into my computer?' " Mr. Jahanbin says.
Installing additional fire-wall software, which helps protect a computer system from outside parties such as hackers, is a big help. Also of concern is solid anti-virus software, particularly in a network setting.
"If one computer got a virus, it would spread to the other computers," Mr. Jahanbin says.
Security within the home is another matter, Mr. Anis says.
To prevent children on other computers from accessing sensitive materials on a parent's system, Mr. Anis suggests storing data in folders that require a password to enter. Basic operating systems such as Windows NT or Windows 2000 have such systems built in, he says.
Networked computers share quite a bit, but they have their limits. Scanning beds, which transform images into data, cannot be shared through a network, but Mr. Anis says a computer user can scan an image on one computer, then share that scanned image with the other computers on the network.


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