Mobility Loop

 

Originally published by Mobility Loop.

Reposted with permission.

Copyright © 2006 Core Competence Inc.

All rights reserved.

 

When Wi-Fi Routers Go Mobile

 

 

 

Monday, March 06, 2006

Written by Lisa Phifer   

PhiferMost travelers who use Wi-Fi carry mobile clients: laptops with PC cards, PDAs with embedded adapters, or dual-mode 3G/Wi-Fi smartphones.  But recently, a new category of mobile Wi-Fi device has emerged: the 802.11 travel router.  Why pack a Wi-Fi router in your roll-aboard?  The answer might surprise you.

Making the case for Wi-Fi travel routers

Many hotels now offer Wi-Fi, but most only provide coverage in public areas (e.g., lobbies, restaurants, conference rooms). Hotel rooms usually deliver high-speed broadband service via Ethernet, not Wi-Fi. So a Wi-Fi travel router can make in-room Internet access more convenient by un-tethering you from the Ethernet jack.

In-room work is often a solo activity, but when colleagues work together, Internet access for more than one device may be needed. Two laptops can't be plugged into a single Ethernet jack, but several Wi-Fi clients can easily share one broadband connection through a Wi-Fi travel router or AP. With an AP, clients connect to (and pay for) service independently. With a router, clients share one wired broadband connection, letting colleagues split the cost of Internet access.

Travelers also work together in many public locations, including meeting rooms, cafes, airports, and other Wi-Fi hotspots.  Some travel routers let multiple wireless clients share a single wireless broadband connection. In addition, wireless clients connected to a travel router can communicate securely with each other, even when the hotspot does not encrypt Internet-bound traffic. This can be handy to share sensitive files with travel companions.

Wi-Fi travel routers insulate client devices from many hotspot threats -- for example, stopping your laptop from exposing fileshares to other hotspot users, and deflecting inbound connections that exploit one of the many listening ports on Windows 2000/XP. Your personal firewall may already provide this protection. But a travel router avoids configuration mistakes often made when using the same Wi-Fi adapter at the office, at home, and on the road.

Some travel routers provide extra features that create cost-saving opportunities. One example: connecting an analog phone to the travel router to place free Voice-over-IP calls through an Internet SIP service like FreeWorldDialup or SIPphone.

Travel routers are small and lightweight, but many have the same features found in a full-size residential Wi-Fi routers. If you're the only Wi-Fi user in your household, consider using the same travel router at home and on the road. Some even have toggle switches to make it easier to use the router in several networks without constant reconfiguration.

Buying a Wi-Fi travel router

If you decide to invest in a Wi-Fi travel router, there are plenty of products to choose from. To get you started, here is a sample list:

 

·                  3Com OfficeConnect Wireless 54Mbps 11g Travel Router (3CRTRV10075)

·                  Accton Wireless Personal Gateway (VG2211i)

·                  ASUS Pocket Wireless Access Point + Ethernet Adapter (WL330G)

·                  ASUS Wireless Pocket 4-Port Router (WL530G)

·                  Belkin Wireless G Travel Router (F5D7233)

·                  D-Link AirPlus G Wireless Pocket Router/AP (DWL-G730AP)

·                  Linksys Wireless-G Travel Router with SpeedBooster (WTR54GS)

·                  Netgear 54 Mbps Cable/DSL Wireless Travel Router (WGR101)

·                  SMC Barricade g Wireless Travel Voice Gateway (SMCWTVG)

 

When purchasing a Wi-Fi travel router, features to look for include the following:

Power Options: Travel routers come with a carrying case containing associated cables and power adapter(s). A completely-packed case is going to be larger and heavier than that little deck-of-cards travel router, so be sure to compare not just router size/weight, but the full package. To avoid bulky external power "bricks," look for internal power supplies and USB power cables that let the router draw juice from your plugged-in laptop, economizing on outlet space.

Modes: Most of these products can be used as a Wi-Fi router OR as a Wi-Fi client. In router mode, the Ethernet port faces upstream, connecting many wireless clients to one wired broadband connection. In client mode, the Ethernet port faces downstream, connecting one wired client to a wireless broadband connection. These modes satisfy most traveler needs, but several products can also operate as wireless APs and repeaters. For example, look for a repeater if you plan to connect many wireless clients to one upstream wireless network.

Ports: Some travel routers have just one RJ-45 port, but many have at least two ports. Those extra RJ-45 (Ethernet) or RJ-11 (telephone) ports are helpful when you want to connect additional wired devices -- for example, letting both wired and wireless clients share your wireless broadband connection, or letting you make or receive VoIP calls with an analog telephone handset.

Configuration: Travel routers use web configuration interfaces to set network and security parameters, including operational mode and port addresses. If you plan to connect to the same network(s) often, look for a router with a physical toggle switch that lets you easily restore previous settings -- for example, switching between fixed home network settings and dynamic "any hotspot" settings. A few products claim to be self-configuring -- for example, automatically associating to any nearby SSID whenever the WAN Ethernet port is not plugged into a wired broadband connection.

Wireless Compatibility: 802.11b/g support is common today, but if you want to use speed-boosting features, be sure to buy your travel router and wireless client adapters from the same vendor. When a single client uses a Wi-Fi travel router to check email and browse the web, quality of service controls don't matter. But if you plan to use latency-sensitive applications (voice, video) in a multi-application/multi-client office network environment, look for Wi-Fi Multi-Media (WMM) support.

Wireless Security: Most travel routers on the market today support open mode, WEP, WPA-PSK (pre-shared key), and WPA2-PSK (sometimes a firmware upgrade). If you want to connect the router to an office LAN, or to hotspots that offer WPA security, you’ll need a router that also supports WPA with 802.1X when serving as a wireless client -- for example, letting you use 802.1X/PEAP at iBAHN hotspots.

MAC Security: Most travel routers can be configured to filter on Media Access Control (MAC) addresses. At least one product can limit your router to a single client when you want to stop wireless neighbors from sharing your travel router. Most other products support configurable permit/deny MAC lists that can be used to recognize your laptop's adapter and ignore everyone else. MAC addresses are easily spoofed, so these lists are merely a deterrent -- but in this case, probably worth the effort to configure.

Firewall Security: In wireless client, AP, or repeater modes, network firewall features are irrelevant. But when used as a router, these devices usually provide network address translation (NAT) and stateful packet inspection (SPI). By default, firewall rules typically block all incoming connections and allow all outgoing connections. Some products provide more advanced firewall options, like the ability to create a demilitarized zone (DMZ) and port-forward inbound connections to a server. Most travelers do not need to run Internet servers, but look for such features if you run multi-port applications that must receive "unsolicited" inbound connections (e.g., games, video conferencing).

VPN Pass-Thru: Many business travelers use VPNs to tunnel corporate data over PPTP, L2TP, or IPsec protocols. Passing VPN traffic through a NAT device can be troublesome if that device doesn't implement a "VPN pass-thru." This feature relays tunneled traffic through the firewall without translating the port number hidden inside encrypted packets. If you use a VPN, choose a travel router that can pass the type of protocol that you require. IPSec and PPTP pass-thrus are common, but L2TP less so. Note that pass-thru is not required by SSL VPN users.

WAN Security: To stop outsiders from reconfiguring or attacking your travel router through its upstream interface, look for (and use!) security options that let you disable WAN port ping and management through the WAN port. Change the default management password and, if possible, the management account name and port. Never manage your router via HTTP over an open wireless connection in a public location. Instead, look for products with SSL-encrypted configuration interfaces, or re-configure your router over Ethernet only.

These are just a few of the features you might want to consider when shopping for a Wi-Fi travel router. Most of these products share basic characteristics like small footprint, carrying case, b/g support, router mode with NAT/firewall, and web configuration. Differentiating features vary widely. For example, the Accton and SMC support to analog handsets, while the ASSUS has 4 Ethernet ports. The Netgear has a single-user mode, while the D-Link supports 802.1X authentication. The Linksys supports push-button configuration with SecureEasySetup wireless clients, while the 3COM has four modes of operation controlled by a sliding switch. To get started, I recommend deciding which use cases your travel router must support. A device used just for hotel room convenience can have fewer modes and features than one that must also connect to office WLANs. If mobility is really your goal, then size, power, and fast-configuration options will be important to you.

In the end, Wi-Fi travel routers aren't for everyone. Don't pay double for a sophisticated travel router when simpler, less expensive travel router -- or a full-size residential router -- will meet your needs. On the other hand, travel routers are a mobile Wi-Fi option with potential uses that many road warriors have long over-looked. Take a look at these products the next time you buy wireless router for personal use -- you may be surprised to find that they can help you in ways that you had not envisioned.