Windows XP Service Pack 2: How it affects wireless networking

Windows XP SP2 offers several features designed to improve security and ease of use for wireless networking. Enhancements include built-in support for WPA security, the Wireless Network Setup Wizard, and wireless provisioning services support.

Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) is a complex update with many ramifications for IT pros. TechRepublic's Windows XP Service Pack 2 Quick Guide drills down on critical SP2 need-to-know areas, with sections on fundamentals, changes that occur after installation, deployment procedures, problem areas, and removal.

Now that Service Pack 2 (SP2) for Windows XP is finally out there, users are trying to understand just what it does and how it affects the everyday tasks they perform with their computers. Whether you follow the philosophy of “install now, ask questions later” or you’re holding back to see what happens to the early adopters before you load it on your machine, you’re probably wondering just what functionality it will add, which applications it may break, and what price you’ll pay for the improved security that it’s supposed to provide. Last time, we examined the changes that SP2 makes to Internet Explorer. In this article, we'll look at SP2's effect on wireless networking in XP, as well as some of the problems that have been reported with wireless connectivity following SP2 installation.

New wireless functionality added by SP2

SP2 adds several enhancements to Windows XP’s wireless networking support, including:

  • Built-in support for WPA security
  • Wireless Network Setup Wizard
  • Wireless provisioning services support

Built-in WPA support

Windows XP, out of the box or with SP1, has built-in support for Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption. However, WEP suffers from several known weaknesses and is relatively easy to crack.

To use a stronger wireless encryption protocol, Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), you have to download and install WPA client software from Microsoft. The Windows WPA client is also part of the Wireless Update Rollup Package (see Knowledge Base article 826942). SP2 adds WPA client support to XP so that you don’t have to install the client software separately. The addition of WPA support provides greater security for wireless networks.


Using WPA requires more than the WPA client software. Your network’s wireless access point (WAP) and your wireless network adapter must also support WPA. You may be able to get a firmware update for your WAP and driver updates for your NICs if they don’t already support WPA.

Wireless Network Setup Wizard

Setting up a wireless network with Windows XP is already relatively easy—but setting it up securely is another matter. Without SP2, the default is not to use any type of encryption, so your wireless transmissions are wide open to anyone within range who has the equipment and software to capture them.

SP2 adds a new Wireless Network Setup Wizard to walk you through the process of creating an infrastructure wireless network. To access the wizard, open My Network Places and select Set Up A Wireless Network For A Home Or Small Office from the Network Tasks listed in the left pane, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A

Access the Wireless Network Setup Wizard from My Network Places.

To help bolster the security of your wireless network, the default setting in the wizard enables WEP encryption, as shown in Figure B. You also have the option to use stronger WPA encryption.

Figure B

The new Wireless Network Setup Wizard defaults to WEP encryption.

With the wizard, you can have Windows automatically assign an encryption key for WEP or WPA or you can manually create your own key. If you want to manually assign a WEP key, you can choose either a five- or 13-character key, or a 10- or 26-character hexadecimal key. If you manually assign a WPA key, you can create a key with up to 63 characters (minimum of eight characters) or a 64-character hexadecimal key.

By default, the characters are hidden as you type them, although you can display them by deselecting the Hide Characters As I Type check box, shown in Figure C.

Figure C

You can manually assign an encryption key for WEP or WPA.

The Wireless Network Setup Wizard allows you to save your network settings on a USB flash memory device, which makes it easy to configure additional computers to use your wireless network. Once you've saved the settings to the flash drive, you can just attach it to each computer and transfer them instead of entering them manually. Figure D shows this option.

Figure D

The wizard gives you the option of saving your wireless network settings to a USB flash device.

If you decide to set up the network manually, you’ll be able to print the network settings to use as a reference when you configure additional computers.

Changes to the wireless networking configuration interface

The Connect To Wireless Network interface has been given a makeover and a new name; it’s now the Wireless Network Connection dialog box. Figure E shows the new dialog box.

Figure E

SP2 changes the dialog box that’s used to configure wireless network connections.

For each wireless network that is detected, the new dialog box shows the network name (SSID), whether it has security (WEP or WPA) enabled, and the connection status. An icon indicates the strength of the signal, which is handy if you want to be sure to connect to the network with the strongest signal. A star icon in the upper-right corner means the network is a preferred network. The icon on the left side indicates whether the network is infrastructure (WAP-based) or ad hoc (computer-to-computer).

You can invoke the Wireless Network Setup Wizard from the left pane of this dialog box. You can also refresh the list of wireless networks, change the order of preferred networks, change advanced settings, or learn more about wireless networking.

Slight changes have been made to the Wireless Network Properties dialog box, but these are minor.

Wireless provisioning services

Another change to wireless functionality added by SP2 is support for wireless provisioning services (WPS). This automatically configures the network settings for connecting to public wireless hotspots, such as those available in hotels, coffee shops, and airports.

WPS makes it easier to use these services by automating not only the configuration process but also the identification and payment process when connecting to a hotspot that is run by a commercial wireless Internet service provider (WISP).

Using WPS requires that the WAP support VLAN IDs or IP filtering, and the WAP needs to be configured as a RADIUS client. This means there must be an IAS server on the provider network. A provisioning server maintains configuration information in an XML file and provides it to the wireless clients. The provider network must also have a user accounts database. This can be done with Active Directory or LDAP directories.


For more detailed information about how to set up and use WPS, see the TechNet article ”Wireless Provisioning Services Overview."

Wireless networking problems reported

Now that we’ve talked about how SP2 improves wireless networking in Windows XP, the next question is inevitable: Does SP2 cause any problems with wireless connectivity?

User reports during beta testing of SP2 contained complaints of SP2 “breaking” the computer’s wireless networking capability. Inability to obtain an IP address via DHCP for a wireless connection and driver issues with wireless NICs were the most common problems. We’re hearing much less of this with the final release version. We’ve also heard from users who found that the range of their wireless networks was reduced after installing SP2. Most of these problems could be worked around by configuring an IP address manually.

On the other hand, many users report better wireless reliability with SP2. We’ve found that several past annoyances, such as networks that are out of range remaining in the list, have disappeared.

Welcome changes

Windows XP Service Pack 2 makes changes to many aspects of the operating system. When it comes to wireless networking, SP2 has managed to improve ease of use and enhance security—no small feat. Setting up a wireless network is easier than ever with the Wireless Network Setup Wizard, and WPA encryption is a welcome improvement for security-minded wireless users. WPS support makes it easier to connect to wireless hotspots, wherever you may find them.

By Deb Shinder

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...