A Change in the Air

Why companies are plugging in to wireless

Atomic Dog Publishing employees are a perky bunch, and small wonder: For 17 hours a day, they can have espresso, latte, or a dozen other caffeinated drinks brought to them as they work. So the workers are certainly wired--but their computers are not. The wireless local-area network (LAN) at the fast-growing Cincinnati textbook publisher reaches a half-block away to Kaldi's Coffeehouse & Bookstore.

You can't get much more flexible than that, and flexibility is why wireless LAN's are catching on at small companies. If you're renovating existing offices or expanding into new space, you won't need to pull cables through drop ceilings or drill holes in brick walls. Just set up the LAN once, and employees, now untethered, can be quickly moved as needed--sometimes in unusual ways. "Portability is key," says Atomic Dog CEO Alex von Rosenberg, whose workforce has more than doubled, to 38, in the past year. "We can pull people into any location and still be connected."

The LAN's radio waves enable devices on the network, including computers and printers, to send and receive data up to 100 feet indoors without amplification. Some, such as the Agere Systems Inc. LAN used by Atomic Dog, can reach 400 feet if there are no obstructions, like unusually thick walls. The main drawback is that the farther away you move, the slower the data transmission. Try sending that Flash animation from down the street, and the speed of 7 megabits per second you were enjoying in the office will drop to 1 megabit per second--time enough to order another cup of coffee.

Wireless LANs aren't new, but the earlier offerings left users longing to return to copper. The devices--essentially radio antennae that plug into existing desktop PCs, laptops, and printers--were too expensive, too slow, and too complicated. New models weren't always compatible with existing ones, requiring costly new purchases.

That has mostly changed. First, new wireless LANs, while still pricey, have become more affordable. A simple wireless network connecting 10 workers will cost about $300 per person for the hardware, vs. $125 for a wired LAN. (You might save a few bucks on installation, though, since you're not knocking holes in walls.)

What about speed? Wireless LANs today are five times as fast as just two years ago--and only marginally slower than a wired Ethernet. (Theoretically, wireless can move data at 11 megabits per second, although typically it's closer to 7 megabits. A comparable wired LAN can expect to send data at about 9 megabits.) And wireless will get faster yet. Texas Instruments Inc. has produced a wireless LAN chip, due in products late this year, that doubles the current speed.

As for complexity, granted, a wireless LAN may require the attention of a trained networking manager, but that's no different from a conventional system. One weakness: "The documentation leaves something to be desired," says Carl Oppedahl, co-founder of Oppedahl & Larson LLP, a patent law firm in Dillon, Colo., that operates three wireless LANs--one in its 4,400-square-foot office and one in each of the two partners' houses. All are connected by private, fixed microwave links.

Lastly, there's the question of compatibility. Competing standards have largely given way to what's known as Wi-Fi for the business market, while Bluetooth and Homerf, the other main standards, operate at lower speeds and shorter distances. Both are finding a place in business, however: Bluetooth to connect desktop devices, say, a PC to speakers; and Homerf to link wireless personal digital assistants to office LANs. Be aware that using a Bluetooth-compatible device can slow down a wireless LAN. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi--as well as some cell phones and microwave ovens--share the same 2.4 to 2.483 gigahertz unlicensed frequency range.

So, how do you create a wireless LAN? First, all devices on the network must have a radio transmitter and receiver. Some notebook PCs, such as IBM's low-end ThinkPad i Series, are equipped with an antenna. Otherwise, you need to buy a PC card antenna (about $130 through 3Com Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc., among others). These simply slip into a slot on the side of your notebook. Most desktop PCs can be outfitted with an antenna that fits into the universal serial bus (USB) port in the back of a computer.

You must set up "access point" devices around your office. These devices, the size of an average hardback novel and costing $800, wirelessly receive and transmit data from your computers and printers on one end and are connected via a standard Ethernet cable to your system servers. A 10-person company will probably need one or two access points. The network doesn't have to end there, either. It can be connected to the Internet, using a dial-up modem, cable modem, or DSL router so your staff can surf from anywhere the network reaches. You have to love it: By cutting the cord, they'll stay more plugged in than ever.

By Kevin Ferguson

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