Access Multiple Networks with Ease

By Ronald Pacchiano | Posted May 19, 2006

If you're anything like me, you spend a lot of time traveling and working between different locations. Speaking for myself, I spend a lot of time in three primary locations: my office, my home and my girlfriend's house. Because I'm usually so busy, I'm typically stuck dragging my trusty notebook with me everywhere I go.

This means that throughout the course of the day, I need to connect to up to three different networks. As if that wasn't bad enough, I've recently been doing a lot of consulting for a number of different clients, each with their own network and security credentials. Of these networks, some are wired and some use wireless LANs; some use static IP addresses, while others use dynamic IP addresses.

In the past moving among all of these various locations required me to keep track of and reconfigure my TCP/IP settings with each visit. While not incredibly difficult, it was frustrating and time-consuming. The only solution to this used to be to purchase a third-party utility that would create and store a profile of each network configuration and then manually switch between these profiles when you got to a location. This was OK, but these programs typically where difficult to use and sometimes caused more headaches then they solved.

Fortunately, Windows XP users now have a better solution available to them in the form of the Automatic Configuration for Multiple Networks. The feature makes it easy for you to move a mobile computer from one LAN to another without having to first manually reconfigure TCP/IP settings. This process will work on networks using a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server or static IP addresses, wired or wireless networks. If your computer cannot find your preferred network, it will automatically try an alternative configuration.

To configure Windows XP's Automatic Configuration feature you'll need to be logged on to the system with Administrator rights. Once you are, just follow these simple steps:

  1. Open Network Connections. If it isn't displayed on your desktop, it can be found in the Control Panel. (Using Windows XP's Category View for the Control Panel, click Start, Control Panel, Network and Internet Connections, and then click Network Connections.)
  2. Right-click the network connection that you want to configure, and then click Properties.
  3. On the General tab, select the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), and then click the Properties button.
  4. On the General tab, click Obtain an IP address automatically. This will allow the laptop to work on your boss's home network, for example.
  5. On the Alternate Configuration tab, click User configured and then enter the appropriate settings for your office environment. This includes the following:

    • IP address
    • Subnet mask
    • Default gateway
    • Preferred and alternate DNS server
    • Preferred and alternate WINS server

  6. Click OK.

Once this has been completed, your LAN should now have the capability to automatically connect to multiple networks. While this is helpful, where this feature really shines is when it's used in conjunction with wireless LANs. With automatic configuration for wireless networks, you can create a list of wireless networks and specify the order in which to attempt connections.

To configure settings on the Wireless Networks tab, you must be logged on as an administrator, and you must use a wireless network adapter that supports the Wireless Zero Configuration (WZC) service. For new systems, those purchased within the last two years or so, this shouldn't be a problem. For older systems, or those that didn't come pre-equipped with wireless adapters, you'll need to check with the manufacturer to see if their wireless hardware is compliant with this standard.

Configuring this service is actually a two-step process. The first step requires that your system be running the WZC service. WZC is built into the Windows XP operating system and it's designed to dynamically authenticate to a WLAN based either on your preferences or on its default settings. It accomplishes this by maintaining a list of your preferred WLAN's and connecting to them as they become available. The WZC service is not installed by default during a Windows XP installation. However, new notebooks equipped from the manufacture with WLAN adapters usually have WZC pre-installed

You'll know you need to install WZC on your system if you find that the "Wireless Networks" tab is missing from the Wireless Network Connection Properties window. If it is missing, don't sweat it. WZC can be installed easily and in just a few minutes.

Before you begin, though, make sure that your system has been configured to display hidden files. If it hasn't, all you need to do is open Windows Explorer, click Tools and select Folder Options. Go to the View tab and scroll down till you come across the option "Show Hidden Files and Folders" and check it. Also you'll need to uncheck the option "Hide Protected Operating System Files (Recommended)". Click OK when finished.

To install the WZC service on to your system, just follow this simple procedure:

  1. Click the Start button, and then click Control Panel.
  2. In the Control Panel window, under Pick a category, double-click the Network and Internet Connections icon.
  3. In the Network and Internet Connections window, under or pick a Control Panel icon, double-click the Network Connections icon.
  4. In the Network Connections window, under LAN or High Speed Internet, click to select the Local Area Connection icon.
  5. On the menu bar, click File.
  6. On the File menu, click Properties.
  7. In the Local Area Connections Properties window, on the General tab, click the Install button.
  8. In the Select Network Component Type window, in the Click the type of network... box, click to select the Service icon.
  9. Click the Add ... button.
  10. In the Select Network Service window, click the Have Disk ... button.
  11. Click the OKbutton.
  12. In the Install From Disk window, click the Browse... button.
  13. In the Locate File window, browse to the C:WindowsInf folder (this is a hidden folder).
  14. Click to select NETWZC.INF.
  15. Click the Open button.
  16. In the Install from Disk window, click the OK button.
  17. In the Select Network Service window, in the Network Service box, click to select Wireless Zero Configuration.
  18. Click the OK button.

At this point you'll need to reboot your PC. With that completed, you should find that the Wireless Zero Configuration service has been successfully installed on your system and you should now have access to the "Wireless Networks" tab.

NOTE: If you don't see the Wireless Network tab when you go back into the Network Properties Page then the most likely problem is that the service did not start. To start it, open Administrative Tools in the Control Panel and select Services. Scroll down to Wireless Zero Configuration, Right-click on it and select Start. The service is now enabled and the Wireless Network tab will be visible in Network Properties.

With WZC installed and functioning we can now complete the automatic wireless network configuration by performing these easy steps:

  1. Open Network Connections.
  2. Right-click Wireless Network Connection and then click Properties.
  3. On the Wireless Networks tab, do one of the following:

    • To enable automatic wireless network configuration, select the Use Windows to configure my wireless network settings check box. This check box is selected by default.
    • To disable automatic wireless network configuration, clear the Use Windows to configure my wireless network settings check box.

Now Windows XP will alert you when a new or preferred WLAN comes into range. In the list of Available networks, click the network name, and then click Configure. Enter the appropriate network information, like the security type and key. After this information has been entered, it's saved as a profile and in the future will automatically authenticate you to this network as soon as it becomes available.

If WLAN you're looking for doesn't broadcast its Service Set Identifier (SSID), it will not appear under Available networks. In this situation, you'll need to add it manually. To do this, go to "Preferred Networks" and click Add. In Wireless Network Properties, specify the SSID name and, if needed, the security key settings.

The list of available networks can be updated at any time by simply clicking Refresh. If you are connecting to multiple wireless networks, your preferred network might not be at the top of the list, but you can quickly modified this. Under Preferred Networks, select the wireless network that you want to move to a new position on the list and then click the Move up or Move down button respectively.

By taking advantage of Window XP's Automatic Configuration for Multiple Networks feature, moving between network locations should be no more stressful then walking through the door. Enjoy!

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

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