Can You Share a Dial-up Connection?

By Ronald Pacchiano | Posted February 11, 2005

I'm a new SMB owner with two employees. We have three PCs in our office along with a printer/fax machine connected to a second phone line.

I've just started this business, and I'm trying to keep costs down, so I don't have a high-speed cable modem or DSL line, which means we're using a dial-up connection. I'd like all three of us to share Internet access, but I don't know how we would do that. Is there any kind of modem, hub, switch, etc. that I could use to share my desktop's dial-up Internet connection among all three computers and still be able to keep the fax machine on the dedicated line? Thanks for your help.

It's funny: Sometimes I forget that not everybody has the luxury of a high-speed Internet connection, and it seems that I'm not alone. Most vendors don't even make dial-up routers anymore. The few that do use them primarily as a backup in case the broadband connection goes down. In fact, the last time somebody asked me a question like this I couldn't even find any new products to recommend. The only ones I was familiar with (the ZoomAir IG-4165 Wireless Internet Gateway and the SMC Barricade Wireless Router) were already several years old.

Coincidently, a few days before I received your question a colleague of mine pointed out a product that's perfect for your situation. It's called the WiFlyer — it's a dial-up/broadband portable access point from a company called Always On Wireless Inc..

About the size of a large PDA, the WiFlyer is designed to be used as an access point providing your network access to a dial-up Internet account. Just as a router does for broadband, the WiFlyer provides Internet access for all of the PCs in your workgroup without the need to configure complicated software. And unlike Microsoft's Internet Connection Sharing (ICS), a dedicated PC doesn't need to remain on at all times. It supports the 802.11b standard and has an internal antenna along with an antenna port for an external antenna (not included). While it's not as fast as its 802.11g brethren, it's more than adequate for the average user.

While the WiFlyer's wireless speed may seem a bit dated, its wireless security is certainly not. With WPA -PSK as well as 64- and 128-bit WEP encryption, disabling AP visibility, and MAC address filtering, the WiFlyer can easily keep your wireless network safe from all but the most dedicated intruders. Some other notable network features include a port-filtering firewall, virtual server, port trigger, DMZ host and MAC address cloning. The WiFlyer also features a phonebook that allows you to store up to 10 dial-up access numbers and supports just about all ISP brands of Web accelerators.

Like other routers in its class, the WiFlyer can be configured using virtually any Web browser. Since only a browser is needed, the WiFlyer works with just about any operating system. The one feature the WiFlyer doesn't have unfortunately is auto-connect. So when trying to access your browser's home page, the WiFlyer will redirect the browser to its dial-up configuration page. Once there you can simply click on the "Dial Now!" button.

Don't let that discourage you, though. The WiFlyer is packed with enough features to go toe-to-toe with some of today's more popular broadband routers. As a matter of fact, the only real downside to this unit is the price. With an MSRP of approximately $150, it's more then twice the price of your average cable or DSL router. However, in the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king. That old adage can be applied here as well. If you must use dial-up, you really don't have a lot of options to choose from.

On the plus side, even though the WiFlyer is pricey, it's a very good router. It's portable, and it's broadband-compatible. So if at some point in the future you do breakdown and upgrade to a high-speed connection, the WiFlyer will still be there to protect you. This makes it a good value.

As good as the WiFlyer is, I'd be remiss if I didn't reiterate that this is still only a 56kbps line. Even when used in conjunction with the highly marketed Web accelerators from ISPs like Netscape and People PC, performance in most cases will be less then impressive. Divide that limited bandwidth among three users during peak hours, and you're going to learn the meaning of pain.

I would consider seriously ditching the dial-up line if at all possible and upgrading to one of the broadband offerings. The time it saves you when downloading or just plain Web browsing would more then compensate for the added expense. Consider this: If you're already paying about $20 a month for your dial-up line, then the cable modem would cost you only about $20 more a month. The WiFlyer costs about $60 -- $80 more than a comparable broadband router. On eBay you could probably find a decent wireless router for as little as $30 bucks. In that case, the WiFlyer would cost almost $120 more. So for that same $20 more a month, you could have up to six months of broadband for no more than it would have cost you to stay with your dial-up connection. When you think of it that way, it's seriously worth considering.

Don't forget that you'll also need to purchase two wireless network adapters for the two other PCs. You should be able to find those for less than $60 bucks these days, slightly more if you need a PC Card version for a laptop.

For help configuring your wireless network, check out this past Q&A column in which I addressed some of the more common things to look out for. You can find that here. The router's documentation should also have pretty clear instructions on what to do.

Good luck with everything and I hope this helps.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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