laptop with wired connection about to be cut with scissors
Published 02 Mar 2016

“Free Wi-Fi Here” – we’re so used to seeing this sign these days.

Wireless connections really have changed the way we interact with networks. Their convenience has made many people forget that we once lived in a technology world dominated by cables. So is the era of the cable dead? No, as cabled networks still offer many advantages over their wireless counterparts – they just clearly lose out in the convenience stakes.

To give you an idea of the differences which can occur I’ll relate a real personal story from a couple of months ago. I was asked to help a family member install a new ‘fibre optic’ internet connection in their home. The provider stated that they should get between 34 and 37MB with the line they had. As with many people they didn’t want wires trailing around their home so a modern Wi-Fi dongle was used to connect to the router which was just two rooms away. Once set up I ran a connection test and we were all disappointed to see a speed of just 17MB. Out of interest I tried connecting a 20 metre Ethernet cable from the router directly to the PC – and we found the connection was 37MB!

This doesn’t suggest that all Wi-Fi connections give half the speed available when compared against a cable. But it does give food for thought when it comes to getting the best connection possible. Modern wireless standards, such as 802.11ac and 802.11n offer more than enough bandwidth for the fastest of internet connections – but that’s not the whole picture.

If you remove the internet from the equation and talk about using wireless technology for moving files around your office network then there is no doubt that cable is faster. Older CAT5e cables can move 1gb per second around a network, with newer CAT6 cables able to achieve 10GB per second. Of course as with any technology these are theoretical ‘fastest speeds’ and results will vary.

On the whole the variables that can influence a wireless connection are much greater than those for a wired connection. For instance distance and walls have a significant bearing on a wireless connection, plus there is an ‘interference’ factor to consider. Neighbouring Wi-Fi networks, other devices connecting to Wi-Fi and the position of your router can all have an impact on the wireless speed.

Here are some tips to optimise your wireless connection:

  • Situate your router as close to the centre of the required connection area as possible.
  • Raise the router off the floor, preferably on a desk.
  • Make sure all the router antennas are in a raised position.
  • Use a mobile ‘Wi-Fi analysing app’ to check nearby networks, then consider changing your network channel to the one that the app says is the least congested.
  • Check that appliances such as cordless phones, baby monitors and microwaves aren’t located between the router and your connecting device.

Connection quality isn’t just about pure speed and bandwidth. Something known as latency can also be a major factor. This is often referred to as “ping” by some network engineers, or by people who play a lot of online games. Latency is effectively the delay in how long it takes data to travel between its source and destination. For most tasks this delay has very little impact, but if reaction time is critical then again the delay is less on a wired network. You can check your latency or ping via any of the online internet speed test tools.

A final element we must consider when comparing wired and wireless networks is security.

Whilst modern wireless security standards, such as WPA2, are very good it is still theoretically possible for someone to gain access to the network as they only need to be with range of the network. Of course it goes without saying that your wireless network password should be something strong – ‘password123’ or your family name is just too easy to guess.

With a wired router they would need to be able to physically plug their device into the network switch to gain access. So this in its own right makes it much more difficult to compromise.

As with anything there are advantages and disadvantages to both wired and wireless networks. Wireless is without doubt a very convenient modern networking method but if it’s at all possible then a wired network will still be faster, safer and give you less problems overall.

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