A Spot For Wireless LANs

Thinking of adding wireless LAN installations to your resume? A number of strong products are available that are secure, easy to configure, and well-suited to the small and midsize customer. And, increasingly, it's the SMB customer that's looking at wireless LANs as a way to cut down on cabling costs and boost productivity among workers.

The wireless LAN is a "nice and clean' extension to an office's wired LAN, says Tim McNicoll, a system consultant with Heartland Business Systems,

Little Chute, Wis. Wireless LANs are attractive to offices that want to enable workers to take laptops into a conference room, he says.

"Wireless has a place,' he says. "We don't push wireless just because it's available. If I go to a customer and they show me where they want to put their computers, and I think it will require a day or two of cabling, we talk about putting in a wireless network. I can show them a huge savings.'

A New Standard

Interestingly, small vendors have been able to come out with wireless LAN gear that meets the faster 802.11a transmission rate ahead of larger vendors. The new standard performs at speeds as much as five times faster than 802.11b, the prevalent standard used by most wireless gear-makers.

However, vendors including Cisco Systems and 3Com say they also support the faster standard and are working on products, including access points, for commercial use. Barney Dewey, a senior partner at wireless consultancy Andrew Seybold's Outlook For Mobility, Los Gatos, Calif., speculates larger vendors haven't entered the market because they don't want to disrupt the growing number of customers using 802.11b wireless gear. Still, they may be developing solutions that will allow access points using either standard to work together, he says.

Small vendors that have come out with wireless LAN gear that meets the 802.11a transmission rate (using chips from Atheros Communications) include SMC Networks, Proxim and NetGear. One selling point for 802.11a gear is that customers can download larger files more quickly, says Sean Keohane, CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based SMC, which started shipping its EZ Connect 802.11a wireless access point and CardBus adapter earlier this year. SMC's access points sell for $365, supporting up to 64 wireless clients simultaneously and operating in the 5-GHz frequency range at transmission speeds of up to 54 Mbps and 72 Mbps. SMC's adapter costs $145.

Another selling feature, Keohane points out, is it's easier to

find a clear channel with 802.11a. That's because the access points operate in the 5-GHz frequency and not the more crowded 2.4-GHz band used by 802.11b products.

Keep in mind, offices must have Internet connections fast enough to let them take advantage of the 802.11a access points. Also,

the faster gear can be 5 to 10 percent more expensive, Dewey says. The 802.11a access points have more channels for areas that are spread out; the increased number of channels reduces the chance that access points will have to be set on the same channel. The result: better reception.

Opening New Doors

Another place for wireless LANs are small offices without complete corporate networks. They want to use wireless LANs,an affordable way for them to share high-speed Internet access and pass files back and forth,and they don't want to build a wired network because of all the construction that entails.

Doug Nicoletti, owner of NuTec Networks in Roswell, Ga., sells almost exclusively to small and midsize offices. For him, wireless LANs open doors to selling other devices, especially security products. For small offices, Nicoletti recommends "rock solid" OriNoco 802.11b network kits from Agere Systems, a wireless networking company in Allentown, Pa.

For very small offices (fewer than 10 users), Nicoletti installs the RG-1100 Broadband Gateway, which provides high-speed Internet access from DSL, ISDN or cable-modem connections. It also provides enhanced 128-bit RC4 encryption and support for VPNs. A kit for the laptop, which includes the Gold PC World Card, sells for $349. A kit with a USB client device for a desktop computer is also $349.

For larger offices, Agere offers the Access Point 500 for up to 30 simultaneous sessions and the Access Point 1000 for up to 60 simultaneous sessions. Both products have 128-bit encryption, power-over-Ethernet adapters and are compatible with RADIUS servers, which allow user authentication. The AP 500 is $495 and the AP 1000 is $895.

For first-time wireless users, Heartland's McNicoll plans to implement 3Com's Access Point 2000, which began to ship last month for $229. The 802.11b access point automatically configures itself and selects the clearest channel to operate on, according to 3Com. It has standard state-of-the-art security features that include 40-bit-wired equivalent privacy and 128-bit shared-key encryption.