Wireless versus Wired Networking - dummies

By Mark L. Chambers

Wireless networking isn’t as revolutionary as you might think. In fact, it operates in the same manner as the standard wired Ethernet configuration. Of course, the method of transmitting and receiving packets is different when you’re using wireless networking; instead of being sent over a wire, the packets are broadcast through the air like radio signals.

Other than the transmission method, here are the only three major differences between a wired network and its wireless sibling:

  • Speed: Wireless connections are slower. This is the big ’un as well as the big reason why most larger networks still depend on wired Ethernet for the bulk of their connections.

    Even the fastest current wireless technology can pump data at only around 300 Mbps (and that figure would require perfect conditions, so you’re more likely to end up with anywhere from 150 to 200 Mbps), but any run-of-the-mill wired network can easily deliver a steady 100 Mbps.

    Heck, the faster wired networks can hit gigabit (1000 Mbps) speeds! In fact, they can use fiber optic cabling rather than plain copper wire cabling to hit even faster speeds.

  • Semolians: Wireless hardware is more expensive. Depending on the standard supported by your wireless hardware (read more about standards in the next section), you pay significantly more for wireless hardware than you do for 10/100 Mbps wired hardware.

  • Stuff: Wireless networks require no hubs or switches. Most wireless base stations and WAPs can provide connections for up to 253 simultaneous users, so a larger wireless network (with 50 PCs or more) requires far less hardware and upkeep than a wired network that can handle the same number of computers.

Do you want to impress your network administrator? (If you run your own home or small-office network, you can impress a hardware-savvy friend instead.) Use the technonerd buzzwords for network transmission technologies and refer to your wireless network as an unguided network — as opposed to a guided (wired) network.

Naturally, you can add a wireless access point — or, as it’s commonly called, a WAP — to your wired network, which gives you the best of both worlds. The figure illustrates a typical WAP device, which brings 802.11n wireless connectivity to an existing wired network; this baby runs about $75 US.


Many WAP units require two physical connections: one to your wired Ethernet network (naturally) and a Universal Serial Bus (USB) connection to the computer that controls it. You can also share your Internet connection with a dual router, which has both wired and wireless hardware built in.