Microsoft re-engineers the wireless stack for Windows 8 wireless users

Microsoft has given much thought to Windows mobile device and broadband support. See how Windows 8 wireless integration and connectivity work.

Microsoft gave a great deal of thought to the Windows 8 wireless stack, especially when it came to mobility. Windows 8 is designed to make user connectivity as seamless as possible. Mobile broadband and Wi-Fi technology together provide Windows mobile device users with wireless access that is flexible, easy to manage and more efficient for enterprise use.

Mobile broadband

With Windows 8, mobile broadband is no longer considered an afterthought to network connectivity, but rather as an integral component of the wireless stack. Users can now connect to their 3G and 4G mobile broadband networks almost as easily as they can connect to their Wi-Fi hotspots.

Prior to Windows 8, establishing a mobile broadband connection often forced users to find and install third-party device drivers and set up connection management software. The software often conflicted with the Windows connection manager and complicated device and connection management.

The Windows 8 mobile broadband driver works with multiple third-party devices and eliminates the need for additional drivers. Users can plug in their mobile broadband devices and be connected in no time. The simplified user experience could make it easier for enterprise administrators to manage and support those Windows 8 devices, particularly laptops.

The mobile broadband driver is based on the Mobile Broadband Interface Model specification approved by the USB Implementers Forum. The protocol enables host and device connectivity for desktops, laptops, tablets and other mobile devices. As more manufacturers incorporate the specification in their devices, the more universal the plug-and-play nature of mobile broadband devices will become.

Windows 8 wireless integration

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Microsoft has put all wireless technology on an equal footing in its Windows 8 mobile device approach. Mobile broadband connections sit side by side with Wi-Fi connections, so users can easily switch from one connection to the next and from one network to the next. From a single interface, they can see and connect to all available broadband networks.

This integration goes deeper than just the interface. If users want to connect to a mobile broadband network, they can insert their subscriber identity module (SIM) cards or broadband devices into their PCs, and Windows 8 manages the setup. Even if a device supports carrier switching, users can connect to any supported carrier from within the Windows interface.

Windows automatically identifies the carrier associated with a device or SIM card and configures the PC to connect to that carrier's network. In addition, if the carrier provides a mobile broadband app, Windows will automatically download the app from the Windows Store.

Windows also facilitates the process of purchasing a data plan if users don't already have one. When they try to connect to a mobile broadband network, Windows 8 directs them to the carrier's website or the mobile broadband app, where they can purchase a plan. Windows then automatically provides their PCs with details about the carrier and data plan, including information about applicable Wi-Fi hotspots.

Windows 8 also groups the three supported wireless technologies -- mobile broadband, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth -- into one management window that is part of the PC settings. From there, users can turn each "radio" on and off, or they can disable all three at once by using the new Airplane Mode option.

Windows mobile device connectivity

Windows 8 has integrated mobile broadband and Wi-Fi into a seamless interface, but the operating system still prioritizes Wi-Fi networks over mobile networks by default because Wi-Fi networks are typically faster and have higher data limits (if any).

In fact, if a Window 8 wireless user is connected to a mobile broadband network, the OS will disconnect the user from that network and connect to a preferred Wi-Fi network if one becomes available. In some cases, Windows 8 will even power down the mobile broadband device. On the other hand, if no Wi-Fi network is available, Windows 8 will automatically connect to a preferred mobile network.

Windows 8 can also learn a user's network preferences over time and, based on those preferences, prioritize the available networks so that priority networks are selected first. Windows tracks a user's explicit connect and disconnect actions, and it maintains an ordered list based on those actions. For example, if a user switches from one network to another, Windows will automatically prioritize the second network over the first going forward.

Windows 8 also makes it faster to connect to a Wi-Fi network when resuming from standby mode. Windows utilizes optimization operations in the networking stack while providing Wi-Fi adapters with hints and connection information. Users can often be reconnected within a second after coming out of standby mode.

And because many users connect to various public Wi-Fi networks, Windows 8 includes a number of Wi-Fi authentication types. These include Wireless Internet Services Provider roaming, Extensible Authentication Protocol Subscriber Identity Module, EAP Authentication and Key Agreement, EAP-AKA Prime, and EAP Tunneled Transport Layer Security.

Data consumption

Windows 8 also recognizes the need for users to monitor their wireless network usage, particularly with regard to mobile broadband. For this reason, Windows 8 provides usage counters as part of the network settings. The counters track local data usage for both Wi-Fi and mobile broadband connections. In addition, users can reset these counters whenever they want or set up alerts with their mobile broadband carriers to warn them if they're approaching their bandwidth caps.

If users need more detailed information about data usage than what's provided the counters, they can go to Task Manager's App History tab, where they can find how much data an app has consumed on the network. This way, users can see which apps are consuming the most bandwidth and can take action based on what they learn.

Windows 8 also supports the concept of the metered network -- a Wi-Fi or mobile broadband network that has more restrictive data caps. By default, Windows 8 considers all mobile broadband networks as metered and all Wi-Fi networks as non-metered. However, users can mark any network as either metered or non-metered.

Windows 8 uses the metered designation when prioritizing network usage. The OS will connect to a non-metered network before connecting to a metered one. In addition, Windows will defer most updates until the computer is connected to a non-metered network. The only exceptions to this are critical security updates.

Going wireless in Windows 8

With Windows 8, managing wireless networks has never been easier, whether those networks are Wi-Fi or mobile broadband. Mobile broadband networks are treated like Wi-Fi networks, providing users with a seamless experience.

Windows 8 mobile device users can more effectively implement and manage their wireless connections from a single interface, while at the same time monitoring network usage. This way, they won't get bogged down by the process of connecting to the Internet.

IT can benefit from the reduced demand for support and setup resources. And Windows 8 mobile broadband is good news for Windows 8 users, even those who work only at desktops, because they can benefit from the quicker connect times, ease of management and improved prioritization.

This was first published in July 2013

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