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Recently, several wireless sensor network studies demonstrated large discrepancies between experimentally observed communication properties and properties produced by widely used simulation models. Our first goal is to provide sound foundations for conclusions drawn from these studies by extracting relationships between location (e.g. distance) and communication properties (e.g. reception rate) using non-parametric statistical techniques. The objective is to provide a probability density function that completely characterizes the relationship. Furthermore, we study individual link properties and their correlation with respect to common transmitters, receivers and geometrical location. The second objective is to develop a series of wireless network models that produce networks of arbitrary sizes with realistic properties. We use an iterative improvement-based optimization procedure to generate network instances that are statistically similar to empirically observed networks. We evaluate the accuracy of our conclusions using our models on a set of standard communication tasks, like connectivity maintenance and routing.