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The Secure Wireless Network
The most common way to protect an 802.11 wireless network is with WEP. WEP stands for Wired Equivalent Privacy. It's not the most secure, but it is what you will find in use most often in wireless networks in places like coffee shops, hotels, and so forth since it is the most compatible wireless security protocol. Newer secured Wi-Fi networks may use WPA or WPA2 instead of WEP for security. The general concepts are the same for adding computers to those networks, with some differences that we're not discussing here.
WEP can use different sized encryption keys, which are entered as a string of hexadecimal characters. WEP supports two methods of authentication (Shared Key or Open System). These either use no authentication or the WEP key for authentication. Additional authentication is far better, although on networks for customers usually no additional authentication is used and only the WEP key is needed to access the network.
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Adding a Windows XP Computer
It might seem complicated after reading the introduction, but it is really as simple as putting in a password. In Windows XP, view available wireless networks, choose the secured wireless network from the list. You should get a prompt to enter a security key. This is the WEP key. You have to know what this is--either you will have been given it or will have set it up yourself with your access point. In a coffee shop, for example, they have probably given you a 10 character key made of numbers 0-9 and characters A-F. You'll have to put it in twice, and then click OK. That's all there is to it.
There are a few other settings that you may want to adjust, depending on if the network is at your home or your work. There may also be a few options to set if there are several wireless networks available in the same location. You probably won't want to do anything else if you are accessing the network while you are travelling.
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If you have a Windows Vista computer the process is similar, but the interface looks different (if you have Vista you know this). Also, your Wireless network adapter may have come with a management software program that you use instead of the standard Windows interface. The steps are going to be essentially the same, what and where you click and type are really the only differences. Even on a Mac OS X or Linux computer the process is not much different. Now, before you all start writing in and telling me otherwise--think about it--we're entering a security key in every case. That's what we've got to do in order to access the network. How and where we do it is secondary.
If you are setting up a new Wi-Fi network, don't use WEP. Instead, use WPA2 (802.11i) as it is much more secure. There is no need to use the less secure WEP on your own network, as you can set up the access point and Wi-Fi clients yourself the way you want.