ARCHIVED: What is a wireless LAN?

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A wireless local area network (WLAN) is a local area network (LAN) that doesn't rely on wired Ethernet connections. A WLAN can be either an extension to a current wired network or an alternative to it.

WLANs have data transfer speeds ranging from 1 to 54Mbps, with some manufacturers offering proprietary 108Mbps solutions. The 802.11n standard can reach 300 to 600Mbps.

Because the wireless signal is broadcast so everybody nearby can share it, several security precautions are necessary to ensure only authorized users can access your WLAN.

A WLAN signal can be broadcast to cover an area ranging in size from a small office to a large campus. Most commonly, a WLAN access point provides access within a radius of 65 to 300 feet.

WLAN types

Private home or small business WLAN

Commonly, a home or business WLAN employs one or two access points to broadcast a signal around a 100- to 200-foot radius. You can find equipment for installing a home WLAN in many retail stores.

With few exceptions, hardware in this category subscribes to the 802.11a, b, or g standards (also known as Wi-Fi); some home and office WLANs now adhere to the new 802.11n standard. Also, because of security concerns, many home and office WLANs adhere to the Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) standard.

Enterprise class WLAN

An enterprise class WLAN employs a large number of individual access points to broadcast the signal to a wide area. The access points have more features than home or small office WLAN equipment, such as better security, authentication, remote management, and tools to help integrate with existing networks. These access points have a larger coverage area than home or small office equipment, and are designed to work together to cover a much larger area. This equipment can adhere to the 802.11a, b, g, or n standard, or to security-refining standards, such as 802.1x and WPA2.

WLAN standards

Several standards for WLAN hardware exist:

WLAN standard Pros Cons
  • Faster data transfer rates (up to 54Mbps)
  • Supports more simultaneous connections
  • Less susceptible to interference
  • Short range (60-100 feet)
  • Less able to penetrate physical barriers
  • Better at penetrating physical barriers
  • Longest range (70-150 feet)
  • Hardware is usually less expensive
  • Slower data transfer rates (up to 11Mbps)
  • Doesn't support as many simultaneous connections
  • More susceptible to interference
  • Faster data transfer rates (up to 54Mbps)
  • Better range than 802.11b (65-120 feet)
  • More susceptible to interference
The 802.11n standard was recently ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), as compared to the previous three standards. Though specifications may change, it is expected to allow data transfer rates up to 600Mbps, and may offer larger ranges.

Security standards

The 802.11x standards provide some basic security, but are becoming less adequate as use of wireless networking spreads. Following are security standards that extend or replace the basic standard:

WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy)

WEP encrypts data traffic between the wireless access point and the client computer, but doesn't actually secure either end of the transmission. WEP's encryption level is relatively weak (only 40 to 128 bits). Many analysts consider WEP security to be weak and easy to crack.

WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access)

WPA implements higher security and addresses the flaws in WEP, but is intended to be only an intermediate measure until further 802.11i security measures are developed.


This standard is part of a full WPA security standard. WPA consists of a pair of smaller standards that address different aspects of security:

  • TKIP (Temporal Key Integrity Protocol encryption), which encrypts the wireless signal
  • 802.1x, which handles the authentication of users to the network

Commonly, wireless systems have you log into individual wireless access points or let you access the wireless network, but then keep you from accessing network data until you provide further authentication (e.g., VPN).

802.1x makes you authenticate to the wireless network itself, not an individual access point, and not to some other level, such as VPN. This boosts security, because unauthorized traffic can be denied right at the wireless access point.


The Wi-Fi Alliances coined the term "WPA2" for easy use by manufacturers, technicians, and end users. However, the IEEE name of the standard itself is 802.11i. The encryption level is so high that it requires dedicated chips on the hardware to handle it.

In practical use, WPA2 devices have interoperability with WPA devices. When not interfacing with older WPA hardware, WPA2 devices will run strictly by the 802.11i specifications.

WPA2 consists of a pair of smaller standards that address different aspects of security:

  • WPA2-Personal, which uses a pre-shared key (similar to a single password available to groups of users, instead of a single individual); the pre-shared key is stored on the access point and the end user's computer
  • WPA2-Enterprise, which authenticates users against a centralized authentication service

IU Secure, the new IU wireless network for students, faculty, and staff, uses WPA2 Enterprise for authentication.

The information in this document was adapted from the Wireless LAN Association web page.

This is document aick in the Knowledge Base.
Last modified on 2018-01-18 12:33:18.