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Getting around to wireless networking


March 2, 2000
Web posted at: 9:05 a.m. EST (1405 GMT)

In this story:

Benefits of wireless

Wireless networking

Wireless Internet access


(IDG) -- The computing and communications revolution is all about sharing information faster, with more flexibility, and over greater distances. Wireless technology is a logical extension of this concept, freeing us from the logistic constraint of being connected to a network cable or phone line. Although the obvious benefit of wireless is greater mobility, it can also offer greater flexibility in terms of physical layout -- and in some cases even cost savings -- over wired alternatives.

Wireless technologies are used to address many different problems, from insufficient bandwidth to lack of local telecom infrastructure. For the purpose of this article, we'll assume that our reason for using wireless technology is to access a network -- and, by extension, the Internet -- with far more mobility than a wired solution could offer.

Benefits of wireless

Mobility. This is the main advantage of wireless: accessing a network from places where a wired solution would be inconvenient or impractical. If your organization has personnel who need connectivity in places such as factory floors or outside work areas, or who simply need to move around to different parts of a facility, then wireless LAN access may be attractive. In most situations such as this, wired access would be possible but perhaps highly inconvenient.

For example, the project manager who needs to check product specs from the shop floor may find herself endlessly walking back and forth between the shop floor and the nearest workstation -- perhaps even resorting to the old yellow pad solution -- to get the information where it is needed. The quality control manager who regularly visits various company locations may feel as if he spends half his day searching for a free network port to plug into (which always seems to be located behind a huge stack of equipment and requires the wrong type of connector). Both of these workers could save valuable time with a wireless-equipped laptop.

Flexible Layout. In today's fast-paced environment, many organizations find themselves having to rearrange workspaces quite often. With a traditional wired network, something as simple as moving a couple of desks to accommodate a new hire can be a big project, involving network administration staff, physical plant operators, and even carpenters to get the cables laid out properly. If your laptop and/or desktop PCs are equipped with wireless network cards, then you can move them around as much as you please, constrained only by the location of electrical outlets.

Costs. Direct cost savings are seldom a reason for going wireless, because the equipment is still substantially more expensive than comparable wired gear. In the examples above, the time savings and productivity gains for highly paid personnel presumably justify the increased hardware costs. However, wires do cost money to buy and install. In a few specialized cases, such as in historic buildings where installing wires is particularly costly, or if a need for frequently reconfiguring workspaces leads to excessive labor costs and downtime, wireless may offer direct cost savings.

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Once you've decided that you need the improved mobility that wireless offers and are willing to make the cost expenditure, the question becomes, "How much mobility?" and the answer to this question will point to one of two very different solutions. For mobility within a building or a campus, we'll look to wireless networking equipment, basically an extension of our existing in-house LAN or WAN. For connectivity over a larger area, such as a city or metropolitan area (or, someday, anywhere in the world), all but the very largest enterprises will look to a "wireless Internet access" or "wireless data" service, which is basically cellular phone service for data, offered via a local telecom carrier.

Wireless networking

Wireless network access is built around "access points." An access point is a wireless hub that works like a miniature cellular phone tower, providing connectivity within a "cell," which is generally 15 to 100 feet in diameter. Any computer with a wireless network card can access the network wirelessly as long as it's within the area covered by one of the access points.

An access point can be connected to a wired hub or to any computer on the network. It's totally transparent to the user (at least when everything's working properly). It appears as a hub on the network, and a client accessing the network wirelessly sees the network just as it would if it were connected via a wired hub.

As you may have guessed, wireless network access has several disadvantages compared with normal wired access. First, transfer rates are typically slower. At the moment, 2Mbps is typical for wireless network gear, although one manufacturer claims data rates as fast as 10Mbps (at the cost of using a system that isn't totally compatible with the major standard, which is IEEE 802.11), and equipment offering 11Mbps is under development and should be widely available soon.

Second, data rates and reliability vary with distance from the nearest access point. The further you are from the access point, the higher the likelihood that you'll have a troublesome session on the network. Wireless data, like all radio transmission, is also affected by physical barriers such as walls. For seamless coverage, many access points may be needed even in a small building.

The third caveat for potential wireless warriors is that, unlike wired network equipment, wireless gear from different vendors may not be compatible. Wireless LAN equipment may use one of two spread-spectrum technologies, and only equipment that uses the same type of spread-spectrum is compatible.

And as we said previously, wireless networking equipment is more expensive. Prices are coming down all the time, but you can expect to pay $500 to $1,800 for each access point, and $125 to $600 for each wireless network card -- as much as 10 times the cost of comparable wired components. And keep in mind that, unlike wired hubs, the larger the coverage area and the greater the reliability desired, the more wireless access points you'll need. Of course, there are no cables, so you save money and time on cable installation.

One thing that isn't particularly worrisome with wireless is security. Modern wireless applications use the technique called spread-spectrum, which makes interception of data nearly impossible. Instead of transmitting on one particular frequency, spread-spectrum technology splits a signal up and spreads it across a range of frequencies. This creates a certain amount of redundancy, which reduces error rates and also greatly improves security, because only the receiving device (theoretically) has the code needed to reassemble the spread signal into its original form.

Wireless Internet access

If the impetus behind your move to wireless is to support traveling workers via handheld devices such as smart phones and laptops, you'll probably want to look into one of the geographically based wireless data services that transmit data through the air in much the same way as today's cellular telephone networks.

Many areas of the country are served by one or more wireless data services, offered through a local telecom carrier. Examples include Bell Atlantic's 19.2Kbps CDPD (cellular digital packet data) service, and Metricom's 28.8Kbps Ricochet service, now available in San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. What you can get depends on what geographical area you're in.

It's worth noting that traditional cellular phones are getting smarter all the time, and quite a few now offer limited data capabilities, such as e-mail and access to a few specially formatted Web sites. As the cellular infrastructure moves toward a digital model and open standards (such as WAP or Wireless Application Protocol), cellular phone service will converge with wireless data services.

Wireless services of this kind are subject to all the drawbacks of cell phones as far as interference and so forth are concerned, as well as all the caveats listed for wireless networking above. Another hassle is the fact that the wireless LAN and these wireless data services are separate systems. The former requires a wireless network card, while the latter, in most cases, requires a special wireless modem. While the former provides direct access to your network, the latter offers only Internet access, although this can of course be used to access a corporate intranet.

This limitation is slowly being overcome as a few ISPs now offer wireless access to VPNs, and at least one large organization, Carnegie Mellon University, has developed a proprietary application that can hand users off seamlessly between an on-campus wireless LAN and the local telco's wireless service.

The complete text of this article, including Wireless devices and Deploying wireless solutions can be found here.

Technology - Intel targets wireless LANs
February 22, 2000
Intel: Make PCs simpler
February 21, 2000
Future of high-speed networks
February 16, 2000
Intel redirected
February 16, 2000
Intel acquisitions fortify future network role
February 7, 2000
Intel to showcase 1GHz 'Coppermine' Pentium III
February 1, 2000

Cisco's entry likely to drive wireless LAN market
HiperLAN2 wireless networking gathers support
Cisco eager for wireless
(PC World)
Lucent ships wireless LAN
(Network World)
Dell moves further into wireless
Compaq unveils wireless LAN
(PC World)
COMDEX: Wireless LANs take flight
(PC World)
Wireless home LANs get cheaper
(PC World)

Bell Atlantic
Carnegie Mellon University

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