Understanding WEP Encryption Bit by Bit

By Ronald Pacchiano

June 28, 2011

Wireless technology is confusing enough, but when terminology collides, it can get ugly. We sort out a bit of encryption confusion. Plus, will a wireless network mess with cordless phones?

Working at Home

Updated and re-posted on 06/28/2011

I’ve noticed that some of my friends and family are using WEP encryption on their wireless networks. I’d heard that WEP isn’t as safe as WPA and stopped using it a while ago -- is there any reason to keep using it?

The short answer to your question is no, and the long answer is hell no! If you care even a little about your wireless network security, you should stay away from WEP.

WEP (short for Wired Equivalent Privacy -- a misnomer if there ever was one) is more than a decade old now, and while a number of flaws meant it was never particularly secure to begin with, advancements in hardware and software have ensured that with each passing year "cracking" WEP requires less effort, expertise and equipment. Depending on how active the network was, even a low-powered PC could do it in anything ranging from a few hours to a few minutes.

Despite the risk, lots of people still use WEP, mainly out of ignorance or inertia. A few years ago you might be able to rationalize using WEP if you had any wireless devices that didn’t support the newer WPA/WPA2 security methods, but WPA/WPA2 have now been around long enough that all but the most ancient devices support them. (Long after WPA and WPA2 hit the scene, routers used to include WEP support for backwards compatibility, but these days many don’t bother.)

To be sure, the capability of WPA and WPA2 to protect your network still depends on how well it’s configured, but even poorly configured they offer a lot more protection than WEP at its best.

How can I keep a 2.4 GHz cordless phone from interfering with my Wi-Fi network? Do the newer 802.11n wireless networks have the same problem? Also, what about Bluetooth devices? I understand that they also operate on the same 2.4 GHz frequency.

The short answer is that there no way to absolutely prevent a 2.4 GHz cordless phone from interfering with a 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi network. This includes 802.11n as well, although there is also a less common 5 GHz version of 802.11n that is not susceptible to such interference.

The degree of interference you’ll encounter when using a 2.4 GHz cordless phone and Wi-Fi network in the same place depends on many factors, including the size of your space and the specific frequency "channels" your phone and Wi-Fi equipment are configured to use. (For Wi-Fi, you set this in the router, while most 2.4 GHz cordless phones have a button to switch channels or may even do this automatically when interference is detected.)

You must have had the phone you’re using for some time, because the proliferation of 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi pretty much drove 2.4 GHz cordless phones from the market several years ago. If you must continue to use your current phone, keeping the phone base and handsets a fair from your wireless access point should minimize the duration and severity of any interference.

These days new cordless phones almost exclusively use DECT 6 technology -- because DECT operates at 1.9 GHz, it will happily coexist with both 2.4 and 5 GHz wireless network. Your best bet is to replace your cordless phone with a new DECT model, which can be had for as little as fifty bucks.

As for Bluetooth, although it does share a frequency with 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi, its power and range are quite limited, so as long as the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi devices are not right on top of each other, you’re unlikely to experience any interference between them.

Ronald V. Pacchiano is a systems integrator and technology specialist with expertise in Windows server management, desktop support and network administration. He is also an accomplished technology journalist and a contributing writer for Small Business Computing.

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