Take It Outside!

Wi-Fi Flavors

One of your first decisions will be what type of Wi-Fi to go with. The two most common options are 802.11b and 802.11g. Many entrepreneurs choose 802.11b because it's been around longer, is less expensive, and still has enough bandwidth to handle normal office functions and share a typical DSL or cable broadband connection. Phillips also cites the compatibility of "b" adapters when you head out to Wi-Fi hot spots in airports and coffeehouses. They're almost all 802.11b. Home-office entrepreneurs who need to stream high-bandwidth applications like video may consider spending the extra few dollars more for 802.11g.

Michael Goff, 36, partner in PR firm Goff Communications, along with his wife, Marcia, 36, went with Linksys 802.11b equipment. He was comfortable installing the equipment himself and has found quite a few uses for it. Working from a home office often means the lines between business and personal time are blurred. The Goffs have two young boys added into the equation, and wireless helps them balance both sides. "We have one laptop that we let the kids on," says Michael. "We grab the laptop and sit on the couch and surf to PBSkids.org with them in a more comfortable environment that's removed from the office."

The Goffs are also able to take advantage of nice days in Holliston, Massachusetts, and take their work out onto the deck. To make sure their Wi-Fi signal is strong throughout the house, they installed a signal booster. They can surf and catch up on e-mail just as well from the kitchen while getting the kids ready in the morning. But it's not just in and around the home that Wi-Fi comes in handy. Both the Goffs and Oosterhous find themselves on the road, attending trade shows or meeting with clients. Besides coffeehouses and airports, Wi-Fi hot spots are popping up in all sorts of places. Oosterhous has one type of hot spot in particular that she recommends: "Libraries are my favorite because they're very affordable," she says. "If you're on the road and you can find a library, that's like gold."

Oosterhous subscribes to T-Mobile's Wi-Fi hot-spot service. She says the roughly $70 per month is well worth the expense: "It's very affordable compared to possibly missing a business opportunity." You don't have to be in a far-off city to enjoy the flexibility that Wi-Fi in a laptop gives you, though. Just getting out of the house and heading to a local Wi-Fi-equipped coffeehouse can keep you from going stir crazy. The cost varies with location and service. Most offer hourly rates or monthly or yearly subscriptions. In addition to T-Mobile, Boingo Wirelessis another leading player.

Laptops and desktops are obvious candidates for attaching to a Wi-Fi network, but a less obvious choice is your PDA. Says Phillips, "We find that a lot of people are using their PDAs as an extension of their home-office environment." Michael Goff added a CompactFlash Wi-Fi card to his Dell Axim Pocket PC. He admits it may be a bit of overkill for his needs, but he enjoys the flexibility of being able to check his e-mail on a small device without dealing with starting up or running the batteries down on his laptop. You can add a wireless card to your Pocket PC or laptop for between $50 and $100. Going this route also gives you a quick way to synchronize your data between your PDA and desktop without wires.

Blue-Ribbon Winner?
We all know Bluetooth is out there, but it's still pretty early to assess the impact it will have. So what what does it cost, and exactly what is it good for? Home-office entrepreneurs on a budget need to know their wireless investment will pay off in saved time, productivity and convenience. The ROI for Wi-Fi is easy to see, but Bluetooth can seem a little hazy.

A high-end Bluetooth mobile phone headset like Plantronics' M3500 costs $170. It has a built-in digital-signal processor that lessens background noise and makes voice transmission clearer--great for mobile users, who are often in noisy environments. For $99, you can get a headset like Jabra's FreeSpeak 250 with up to eight hours of talk time. It's not chump change, but keeping your hands on the wheel and free from tangles is invaluable.

For an example of how Bluetooth creates small conveniences that mean a lot, check out Socket Communications' $149 Cordless 56K Modem. While many home offices have switched to broadband, those still using dial-up can use this Bluetooth device to untether their laptop or desktop from the phone line. If you travel a lot, you know hotels often place phone jacks in inconvenient places. A device like this lets you use dial-up Internet access from anywhere in the room. When it comes to Bluetooth, your buying decision will be based on how much you value the convenience and how much productivity you expect to gain.

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This article was originally published in the May 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: Take It Outside!.

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