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Set up a wireless office network

Is your staff chained to their desks waiting for email? Cut the cords that choke office productivity with a wireless network.

You're already online--that much is obvious. Now you're probably ready to make the move to wireless.

You've spent a fortune building up a small office network, but already it's nearly obsolete: To stay productive, all your employees have to be at their desks all the time. Meanwhile, sales leads and urgent emails go unanswered whenever your staff members meet in conference rooms or step away from their workstations. Enough! Here's how you can cut the cords with a wireless office network.

Choose your weapon
Here are some of the options to consider if you want an office without wires.

Check the airspace, narrow down your choices
The distance your information has to travel does have an impact.

Wire away but 'ware the wrinkles
If you're going to navigate the wireless maze, here's what else you'll need to know before going wireless.

Stay tuned for the next round
It's not over till it's over.
Choose your weapon

Wireless networks are no longer just science projects. If you don't mind tinkering, it may be worth your while to become an early adopter of Bluetooth. The standard will make serial port sync cables a thing of the past because any Bluetooth device within 30ft of your PC can automatically bond with and relate its travels to home base. Alternatively an 802.11b setup, also called Wi-Fi, will eliminate the associated stringy blue cables hanging from the office ceiling.

Keep in mind that neither system is as affordably priced as the broadband router and Ethernet hub flavor du jour for sharing a broadband connection. You'll pay quite a premium to cut the cord. But you'll also save a relative fortune in cabling fees because expanding the office will no longer involve threading the walls with wire.

Bluetooth unplugged
This technology, named for some reason after a 10th century Viking king, is a short-range wireless technology that connects mobile phones, computers, and personal digital assistants (PDAs) with each other to create your own personal network. But in order for all of your products to work in a wireless network they must all be equipped with a Bluetooth transceiver microchip. Furthermore, the devices can't be more than 30ft apart or they won't be able to communicate. So Bluetooth works best if you plan to stay in one room with all your connected devices.


Additional resources
Better Bluetooth products

What will make Bluetooth blossom

That said, a Bluetooth setup is not an ideal office LAN system--it's better for powering a cluster of mobile devices around a server. Although it does have some clever features that make it easy for two Bluetooth devices to share the same resources, a Bluetooth PAN (personal area network) runs at speeds of up to 2Mbps. To put this in perspective, DSL high-speed Internet access moves at about 300Kbps, while a Wi-Fi system operates at 11Mbps.

Each Bluetooth PAN is limited to seven active connected devices although you can have more than 200 other devices parked (inactive, not transmitting) on a Bluetooth network.

A Wi-Fi act
Once regarded as a high-tech plaything for the executive conference room, wireless LAN technology is now a viable option for mainstream businesses, thanks to lower cost, improved inter-vendor compatibility, and the emergence of wireless Internet access in public places.


Additional resources
Wireless broadband

How can it help your business?

As a case study, Mercedes-Benz USA had a problem that many businesses face. The company maintains volumes of information--vehicle inventory, repair records, and automobile troubleshooting, among other things--in its corporate databases and intranets. Mercedes-Benz employees often need to access these files when they're not plugged into the company's LAN (on dealership floors, in garages, or under the hood of a car).

Basically, a wireless LAN replaces the last 3m of Ethernet cable between your laptop and the wall. Mercedes-Benz installed wireless LANs in all its dealerships nationwide, which allowed the service techs to have a way to hook right into the network.

Wi-Fi has a theoretical limit of 256 computers, although in practice it is often limited to 63, 30, or fewer per access point (wireless hub), depending on the model. On the other hand, Wi-Fi is the closest thing yet to a drop-in replacement for traditional Ethernet. You can hang a Wi-Fi transmitter from most conventional office equipment (servers, desktops, document stations, and so on) and probably never notice the difference. With as much as 300ft of transmitting range, Wi-Fi is meant to reach beyond your personal space.

Once the wireless LAN access point is set up, employees are able to connect to the intranet and Internet from almost anywhere within company facilities.


•  Choose your weapon •  Check the airspace
•  Wire away but 'ware the wrinkles •  Stay tuned for the next round


Check the airspace

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi operate on the 2.4GHz radio band and should not interfere if used simultaneously, but that's only part of the equation. When it comes to positioning wireless receiver access points with respect to your newly liberated computers and printers, line of sight is your friend. Thick, dense walls are your enemy.


Additional resources
Differentiating A and B

An in-depth, technical look at the difference between the two wireless LAN standards, 802.11b and 802.11a.

The pros bring radio-interference measurement equipment to your site and scan the area for hot and cold transmission zones. You can do this yourself because most access points come with a tuning mode or program that lets you gauge the signal strength as you walk it through your workspace. Plan accordingly--there's no point in cheating yourself out of megabits of bandwidth just because your PC is 2ft out of position.

Neighbors on wireless systems may also pose a challenge. Wi-Fi, for instance, has four channels, but even that may get crowded in close quarters. If you're in a dense office complex, it might be wise to stake your claim on a channel while they're available.


•  Choose your weapon •  Check the airspace
•  Wire away but 'ware the wrinkles •  Stay tuned for the next round


Wire away but 'ware the wrinkles

Before you sell your current network for slag, be smart about the transition. While a wireless network isn't yet a "bet-the-company" endeavor, anything that has the potential to disrupt the way your technology talks is an important issue.

Networking Clinic

Get help to some of the thornier SME network access issues, from dead spots to locking up your wireless LAN.

See more tips

If possible, do a "try-before-you-buy" experiment. Depending on your office environment, you might find that the limitations of wireless, in terms of bandwidth or interference, are not worth the freedom of movement.

Wireless networks introduce a new security wrinkle--a would-be perp doesn't necessarily need access to your office to get into your network. Keying your Wi-Fi access point to specific wireless hardware IDs or instructing your Bluetooth network to accept only those devices it recognizes are good commonsense measures. Also, equipping your laptop for wireless might be trickier than you think.

If you want to retain a traditional Ethernet connection, a PC Card wireless antenna (either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi) will probably block any pop-out or "real port" jack you might have, requiring the use of a dongle jack or migration to a USB Ethernet adapter. Unfortunately, that jungle of cables won't be completely deforested just yet.


•  Choose your weapon •  Check the airspace
•  Wire away but 'ware the wrinkles •  Stay tuned for the next round


Stay tuned for the next round

Once you've got your wireless network in place, your work is hardly done. Though wireless has been around for some time, the new Wi-Fi and Bluetooth standards are still in their infancy. The real potential, especially where Bluetooth is concerned, still remains to be seen.

Until the promised horde of Bluetooth PDAs, wireless phones, and next-generation portable computing appliances comes out, it will largely remain a short-range networking novelty. The Wi-Fi standard makes 802.11b networking more of a sure thing, but the higher cost of that technology may restrict its growth outside traditional desktop and laptop systems.


•  Choose your weapon •  Check the airspace
•  Wire away but 'ware the wrinkles •  Stay tuned for the next round