Technology & You
So Long, Computer Cable?
An affordable, wireless LAN is a good idea catching on fast in companines and homes
Now this is portability. I store files on the corporate network at my desk, then pick up my laptop and head to the conference room, where I use it for a Web demo. At home, after dinner, I get the computer from my briefcase and deal with the remains of the day's e-mail while watching a ball game on TV. And I do it all without connecting or disconnecting a cable.
Granted, the sort of wireless communication that lets you get what you want, wherever you want it, is well off in the future. But one form of wireless is simple, reliable, affordable, and available today for home or office use. It's called an IEEE 802.11b wireless local area network, or LAN. Just about everyone who tries it wants it.
Use of this wireless network is exploding. Nearly two-thirds of companies are using, testing, or at least considering wireless LANs, according to a poll of 500-plus companies of all sizes in the Mobile Advisory Council of consulting firm International Data Corp. (www.survey.com/idcmacouncil.html). Schools, frustrated by the difficulty of pulling cables through old buildings, are going wireless, while colleges are "lighting up" entire campuses. A startup called Wayport (www.wayport.com) provides public wireless service at the Austin (Tex.) and Dallas-Fort Worth airports and hotels around the country.
Several factors led to this surge. Manufacturers such as Lucent Technologies (LU) and Cisco Systems (CSCO) agreed on a standard and worked to make their equipment work together. Apple Computer (AAPL) started making all its products ready to go on a wireless LAN with the addition of a $100 AirPort card. And Lucent, which had worked with Apple, slashed the prices for its Orinoco line of wireless gear. Currently a PC Card for a laptop costs around $175, and a desktop adapter is about $70. A commercial access point, or base station, is about $900, and a home starter kit that combines a base station and one PC Card is $420. Under some circumstances, especially where cable must be installed in older buildings or where the presence of asbestos is an issue, wireless can be cheaper than conventional wiring.
Going wireless with an existing Ethernet network is simple. You plug an access point into the network and insert a wireless card into a PC. Installing software and setting up the access point takes minutes. The hardest part is placing the access points for maximum coverage at minimum expense. In theory, computers can be up to 300 feet from access points, but design and construction of a building affect the range.
I don't think wires will disappear from offices. Wireless LANs run at 11 megabits per second, about the same as standard wired networks. This is plenty in most cases. But graphics workstations, servers, routers, and other high-speed devices should be on a high-speed cabled backbone, which can run at up to 100 Mb/s.
Wireless is also attractive for home use. The Orinoco Residential Gateway, which can provide service throughout most houses, includes a modem for dial-up use. Networking makes even more sense with high-speed cable or DSL access, since every computer can use the same link. My main gripe is that instructions for confiGoring the Orinoco Gateway for varied setup needs could be clearer. Look for 3Com to provide competition around the end of the year.
Some companies, notably Intel (INTC) and Proxim (PROX), are promoting a separate, incompatible wireless standard called HomeRF, but it looks like a nonstarter. Why? People don't want to use one wireless card in the office and another at home.
The bigger news for late 2000 and early 2001 is that virtually all notebook manufacturers will follow Apple's lead by making their products wireless-ready. At first, this will just mean an antenna built into the case. Next year, they'll use internal transceivers in the case, and these units will cost less and perform better than today's PC cards. As costs continue to decline, wireless networking could be built into handheld devices such as Palms.
Wireless LANs haven't gotten the sort of attention given Web browsing phones or wireless handhelds. But unlike these immature and flaky wide-area technologies, wireless LANs work reliably and cheaply. Anyone who has or could use a network should give the technology a look.By Stephen H. Wildstrom, TecH&You@businessweek.com