Overview of a Personal Area Network (PAN)

PANs and WPANs consist of personal, nearby devices

texting in front of lightwall
Henrik Sorensen / Getty Images

A personal area network (PAN) is a computer network organized around an individual person and is set up for personal use only. They typically involve a computer, phone, printer, tablet and/or some other personal device like a PDA.

The reason PANs are classified apart from ‚Äčother network types like LANs, WLANs, WANs and MANs is because the idea is to transmit information between devices that are nearby instead of sending that same data through a LAN or WAN before it reaches something that's already within reach.

You can use these networks to transfer files including email, calendar appointments, photos, and music. If the transfers are done over a wireless network, it's technically called a WPAN, which is a wireless personal area network.

Technologies Used to Build a PAN

Personal area networks can be wireless or constructed with cables. USB and FireWire often link together a wired PAN, while WPANs typically use Bluetooth (and are called piconets) or sometimes infrared connections.

Here's an example: A Bluetooth keyboard connects to a tablet to control the interface that's able to reach a nearby smart light bulb.

Also, a printer in a small office or home that connects to a nearby desktop, laptop or phone is considered to exist within a PAN. The same is true for keyboards and other devices that use IrDA (Infrared Data Association).

Theoretically, a PAN might also consist of small, wearable or embedded devices that can communicate upon nearby contact with other wireless devices. A chip inserted beneath the skin of a finger, for example, that can store your medical data, can connect with a device to transmit your information to a doctor.

How Big Is a PAN?

Wireless personal area networks generally cover a range of a few centimeters up to around 10 meters (33 feet). These networks can be viewed as a special type (or subset) of local area networks that support one person instead of a group.

A master-slave device relationship can take place in a PAN where a number of devices connect to the "main" device called the master. The slaves relay data through the master device. With Bluetooth, such a setup could be as large as 100 meters (330 feet).

Although PANs are, by definition, personal, they can still access the internet under certain conditions. For example, a device within a PAN can be connected to a LAN which has access to the internet, which is a WAN. In order, each network type is smaller than the next, but all of them can ultimately be intimately connected.

Benefits of a Personal Area Network

PANs are for personal use, so the benefits might be more easily understood than when talking about wide area networks, for example, that describe the internet. With a personal area network, your own personal devices can interconnect for easier communication.

For instance, a surgery room in a hospital might have its own PAN set up so that the surgeon can communicate with the other team members in the room. It's unnecessary to have all their communication fed through a larger network only to be received by people a few feet away. A PAN takes care of this through short-range communication such as Bluetooth.

Another example briefly mentioned above is with a wireless keyboard or even a mouse. They don't need to operate computers in other buildings or cities, so they're instead built to just communicate with a nearby, usually line-of-sight device like a computer or tablet.

Since most devices that support short-range communication can block out connections that aren't pre-authorized, a WPAN is considered a secure network. However, just like with WLANs and other network types, a personal area network is just as easily accessible to nearby hackers.