Wiring WLAN Access Points

By Jim Geier

June 17, 2003

Wireless LAN access points-- the units that connect wireless users to the wired network -- are not themselves totally wireless. Here's a run down of the wiring options you have for connecting your access points, and the entire wired side of the network in general. .

When deploying a wireless LAN, you can easily forget about the wired side of the network. The access point wiring, sometimes referred to as a distribution system, is very important because it is what connects the access points into the corporate network. In addition to providing access to resources on the network, this wiring also provides the means for roaming.

802.3 Basics

The IEEE 802.3 standard specifies the Ethernet protocol, which includes a medium access method that's similar to 802.11. All users on the network must take turns using the medium with Ethernet hubs. An Ethernet switch, however, enables multiple collision domains that can allow simultaneous transmission among users to improve performance. For larger networks beyond the size of a home or small office application, be sure to use switches for optimum performance.

Of course the major difference between 802.11 and 802.3/Ethernet is that the latter uses twisted pair wiring, coaxial cable, or optical fiber for interconnecting network devices. The use of coaxial cables in older LANs was fairly common about ten years ago, but today most companies use twisted pair and sometimes fiber for moving major amounts of data.

The Electronic Industries Association and Telecommunications Industry Association (EIA/TIA) specifies Category 5 (referred to as "Cat 5") twisted pair wiring, the most popular of all twisted pair cables in use today with Ethernet. Cat 5 consists of four unshielded twisted pairs of 24 gauge wires that support Ethernet signals over 100 meters (or about 328 feet) of cabling. You can use Ethernet repeaters to increase this range if necessary, which is one method of reaching an access point that's beyond a hundred meters from a communications closet.

There are also other variations of twisted pair wiring. Enhanced Cat 5 (referred to as "Cat5e") makes use of all 4 pairs of wires to support short range Gigabit Ethernet (1000 Mbps) connectivity. It is also backward-compatible with regular Cat 5. Cat 6 and Cat 7 cable are now available, bringing more bandwidth and range to copper-based Gigabit Ethernet networks. Cat 7 cable features individually shielded twisted pairs of wires, making it ideal for installation in locations there is a high potential for electro-magnetic interference.

10Base-T

10Base-T is one of the 802.3 physical layers and specifies data rates of 10Mbps. A typical 10Base-T cable uses two of the four pairs within a Cat 5 cable for sending and receiving data. Each end of the cable includes RJ-45 connectors that are a little larger than the common RJ-11 telephone connector used within North America.

The advantage of having extra pairs of wires open is for supporting other uses, such as power-over-Ethernet (PoE). This is a mechanism in which a module injects DC current into the Cat 5 cable, enabling you to supply electrical power to the access point from the communications closet. PoE eliminates the need for having an electrician install new electrical outlets at every access point location. For larger networks, definitely consider the use of PoE.

If you are going to run a strictly 802.11b network, 10Base-T cable will do fine. Even though 802.11b boasts data rates of up to 11Mbps, the actual throughput offered (about 4 to 5 Mbps) fits well within the capacity of 10Mbps Ethernet.

100Base-T

Another 802.3 physical layer, 100Base-T, supports data rates of 100Mbps. Similar to 10Base-T Ethernet, 100-Base-T uses twisted pair wiring, with the following options:

  • 100Base-TX uses two pairs of Cat 5 twisted-pair wires.
  • 100Base-T4 uses four pairs of older, lower quality (Cat 3) twisted-pair wires.

In most cases, you'll be using the 100-Base-TX cabling. As with 10Base-T, you can use the unused pairs of wires for PoE. 100-Base-T4 was popular when needing to support 100Mbps data rates over the older Cat 3 cabling, which was prominent during the early 1990s.

If you're deploying 802.11a or 802.11g access points, strongly consider using 100Base-T. 802.11a and 802.11g consistently deliver actual throughput over 10Mbps, making 10Base-T a possible bottleneck to performance.

Optical Fiber

Optical fiber cable is more expensive than twisted pair, but it can be cost-effective due to support of gigabit speeds and a range of up to two kilometers. Instead of using the traditional electrical-signal-over-copper wire approach, optical fiber cable uses pulses of light over tiny strips of glass or plastic.

This makes optical fiber cable very resistant to electro-magnetic interference, and very valuable in situations where electronic emissions are a concern. In addition, it's nearly impossible to passively monitor the transmission of data through optical fiber cable, making it more secure than twisted pair wiring.

With wireless LANs, optical fiber is a possible solution to reach an access point located beyond a hundred meters from a communications closet. This requires the use of a relatively expensive pair of transceivers, though, which transform electrical signals into light (and vice versa).

One issue when dealing with optical fiber cable, however, is the difficulties in splicing cables, mainly because of the need to work with glass or plastic materials that requires precise alignment. You need special tools and training to make effective optical fiber cables. As a result, purchase precut fiber cables to avoid problems that are difficult to troubleshoot.

Jim Geier provides independent consulting services to companies developing and deploying wireless network solutions. He is the author of the book, Wireless LANs and offers computer-based training focusing on wireless LANs.

Join Jim for discussions as he answers questions in the 802.11 Planet Forums.

802.11 Planet Conference Got a question for Jim Geier and you're just too shy to post anonymously in our forums? Join us at the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, June 25 - 27, 2003 at the World Trade Center Boston in Boston, MA. You can meet Jim in person as he gives his talk called 2.4 GHz or 5GHz? Strategies for Choosing The Right Spectrum .



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