Wireless LAN Liftoff

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While carriers have delayed rollouts of wireless wide area networks, wireless local area networks (Wi-Fi LANs) have surged in popularity. Wi-Fi LANs provide network access only for approximately 300 feet around each access point, but provide for bandwidth up to 11 Mbps for 802.11b, and up to 100 Mbps for the emerging 802.11a protocol. Best of all, the technology is available now and affordable. Mainstream vendors offering Wi-Fi products include Apple, Cisco Systems, Compaq, HP, Intel, Lucent and 3Com.

Wi-Fi LANs are an attractive way to extend corporate networks to other locations and are a cost-effective alternative to wired LANs. That's because they save both the cost of running cable and of updating user information as they move among physical locations. Wi-Fi is especially popular in the manufacturing, distribution and retail industries, says Phil Ballai, director of infrastructure product marketing for the wireless division of handheld device vendor Symbol Technologies, Holtsville, N.Y.

VARs should know that Wi-Fi LANs require skills conventional LANs don't, such as conducting site surveys to figure out how many access points are needed. The Wi-Fi protocol is new enough that VARs can't count on interoperability among network interface cards or access points from different vendors. Security is also a concern, thanks to several hacks of the Wi-Fi encryption protocol.

"It's not as simple as it appears at first blush," says Jack Davis, CEO of SideBand Systems, a wireless reseller in Beverly, Mass. A VAR hoping to sell and support Wi-Fi networks needs to understand LANs, WANs and the wireless network over which the signals travel, he says. In addition, the interoperability among components from multiple vendors "is just not as good as you would expect on a wired network," Ballai says.

VARs and integrators also need to factor in how applications running over Wi-Fi mesh with other wireless technologies. Data shouldn't be lost or leaked as users move among wireless networks or between wired and wireless environments. Developers also face a special challenge in designing applications that are usable on either a high-bandwidth Wi-Fi LAN or a lower-bandwidth 2.5G or 3G network, where less data can be shared.

But the worst mistake, Symbol's Ballai says, is to do nothing. Savvy customers expect a reseller to offer both wired and Wi-Fi options. "If you can't properly address both types of LANs, regardless of which they choose, you run the risk of losing the deal," he says.

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