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Planning and configuring a wireless home network can be confusing at first. There are dozens of terms to familiarize yourself with, not to mention, most of which are initially referred to in the form of an acronym, such as WLAN, AP, WAP, 802.11X, LAN, WEP, Wi-Fi, WPA2, etc. In this article, we want to define the difference between a wireless router and a wireless access point.
Let’s start with a few definitions; wireless, or Wi-Fi, is the ability to communicate with other devices without the assistance of Ethernet cabling. A wireless router is used to commonly allow access to the Internet from wireless devices on a computer network. It can function in a wired LAN (Local Area Network), a WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network), or a combination of. It functions as both an access point and a network switch.
A wireless access point (WAP), on the other hand, only functions as a means to connect to a network, connecting wireless computers and devices to network services. It functions more like a hub. A WAP has also been called a network bridge, or wireless repeater, as it relays data between wireless devices and the network, and typically has a connection to a wireless router, but does not directly connect to the Internet.
In short, wireless routers are typically used in home networks, while wireless access points are used more so in business networks to extend the wireless signal throughout the workplace. Wireless access points can also be utilized for connecting to subnets of a computer network, something like assigning passwords to folders which are shared on a network. It’s just another means of authentication, and managing the flow of wireless traffic across the network.
Still confused about a wireless router vs wireless access point? Regardless, why don’t you continue to read as we define some wireless terminology, and specific differences in hardware and device software.
Wireless computing is simply the ability to communicate with other devices and networks cable-free. Wi-Fi is a branded term referred to devices which have an adapter and communicate on the 802.11 protocol set. This set of protocols, as we more commonly referred to as 802.11a/b/g/n, were set initially in 1997 by the IEEE. Since the initial introduction, there has been an increase in speeds, using different frequencies, and extending the range of Wi-Fi signals.
With every new wireless protocol introduction, manufacturers bring to market both new wireless routers and WAP’s. You would first wonder why the manufacturer would put so much effort into building and marketing both. Technically speaking though, they are not that dissimilar. They both use the same radio bandwidth/frequency, wireless signal range is about the same, and the guts and device drivers are very similar as well. With that said, you will see some differences in price points.
So how do I know what to purchase then? This all depends on what you need to do. Any typical wireless network consists of a modem for connecting to the public Internet via ISP (Internet Service Provider), a router connecting all the computers and devices to allow sharing of files, documents, and network services.
Additionally, there may be concerns with regards to placement of network devices, in relation to where the computers and devices will be used. If you are limited to a certain locale for your Internet hookup, and you use the computer in a distant room, or have devices spread throughout, you may need to consider both, a wireless router and access point, to act more as a network bridge.
What makes one WAP better than another, you may ask. The answer is in the configurations, features, and functions offered. Not all WAP’s are created equal, so pay attention to how it may be deployed.
The better WAP’s should have the ability to be configured as a basic access point, wireless bridge, WAP/bridge, WISP client, and wireless/WISP repeater.
WISP functionality would be of the greatest benefit. Wikipedia defines WISP as, “Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) are Internet service providers with networks built around wireless networking.).” It is a popular mode of Internet services. It’s possible for WISP-enabled WAP’s to act as a front-end client, connecting your network to a WISP.
Though a WISP-enabled WAP is not meant to be portable, you can take advantage of its capabilities, if you happen to be in range of a Wireless Hot Spot. You would be able to connect to the Hot Spot, without actually having to have your own service. Kind of sneaky, I know.
Most likely, this level of capabilities would allow your WAP to switch into WAN mode, allowing incoming traffic to be filtered and appropriately routed using one of a number of tunneling protocols such as PPTP, PPoE, and should communicate with either dynamic, or static IP addresses. Be aware, however, in this mode, your device would no longer act as a WAP.
Larger, enterprise networks utilize the bridging functionality found in these WAP’s, allowing for virtual merging of networks.
Most WAP’s also offer other functions found in wireless routers, such as the ability to forward specific traffic via MAC Filtering, or use the ‘ping’ function to help with signal and device quality.
As evidenced, there is more to a WAP than meets the initial eye. They are typically used as an excellent way to extend wireless signals, and can be the connection device for WISP services. It’s all about what you need, the type of Internet service you will have, and breadth of service required.