It's a sunny 72 degrees outside, and that bench on your back patio looks mighty inviting. This would be a great time to pick up your laptop and step out of your home office for a little while. What's that you say? You're expecting an important e-mail, and you have some research to conduct online? If you had a wireless network, you wouldn't have to think twice about it. There are good reasons why wireless technologies are booming in home offices across the nation.
Your home-office wireless possibilities go beyond just a Wi-Fi network. There's a 99.9 percent chance that you already have a mobile phone you're married to, but we'll start with Wi-Fi. A wireless network can turn your whole house (and patio and porch) into an extension of your home office. This isn't just about technology for technology's sake, but about increasing your productivity and making your workday a more flexible and enjoyable experience.
Karen Oosterhous, 32, publisher of Firebrand Books, has been running her business from a home office in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a year and a half. She installed an 802.11b wireless network with a little help, bringing in outside technical experts to assess her needs, recommend equipment and set up the system. "I do think it's important to have someone come out and look at your setup and recommend what's best for you. A little investment on the front end pays dividends on the back end," says Oosterhous. It cost her $300 for the experts' time, plus the cost of hardware. For entrepreneurs who don't feel comfortable installing Wi-Fi, bringing in outside help removes the headaches and gets the job done right.
One of the benefits Oosterhous enjoys is having her laser printer wirelessly networked so either of her desktop Macs or her IBM laptop can print directly to it. On occasion, she brings in an administrative assistant who works on the laptop in a separate working area. The wireless network lets the assistant have easy file and printing access. Entrepreneurs who bring in temporary or permanent outside help will find a wireless network invaluable.
When it came to buying the hardware for her wireless network, Oosterhous went with D-Link Systems products on the advice of her technical advisors. Peter Phillips, vice president of marketing at connectivity device manufacturer Socket Communications, says, "Often you get what you pay for in the wireless arena in terms of reliability, ease of use and setup. A lot of times, going with a fairly well-known brand is important." While a tight budget is a big consideration, a good warranty and solid, 24-hour tech support can be critical, especially if you're setting up the system yourself. Though installation and ease of use have improved, entrepreneurs dealing with older hardware and operating systems stand a good chance of needing technical support at some point in the process.
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 Wireless is 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.
What About Bluetooth?
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.
Play It Safe
The Goffs also use a wireless computer security system developed by one of their clients, Ensure Technologies. The XyLoc uses wireless radio technology to keep track of the user's proximity to the computer and locks it down when you're away. Home-office users who keep sensitive data on their desktops or have to take their laptops to client sites could find a use for the $179 XyLoc Solo. This kind of device isn't for everyone, but it illustrates the range of wireless solutions available to entrepreneurs.
No discussion of security is complete without looking at securing your wireless network. Your first line of defense is to enable the WEP encryption that comes built into your equipment. Most users have to plug in the encryption code to each piece of hardware they connect. This helps keep snoopers out of your network. "It's more a good policy vs. paranoia," says Michael.
Another technology picking up speed is Bluetooth. As a compliment to Wi-Fi, it's finding a niche as a wire-replacement technology. With a range of about 10 yards, a top use for Bluetooth is mobile phone headsets. You can drive or just walk around and talk with no dangling wires. For very mobile entrepreneurs who need e-mail access no matter where they are, Phillips recommends using a PDA Bluetooth card to connect to a Bluetooth-enabled phone and check your e-mail wherever you have cell service. If this appeals to you, look for built-in Bluetooth when purchasing your next phone.
Speaking of phones, the Goffs recently switched over to Nextel Communications' walkie-talkie phones. Michael says he's still getting used to the instant-connection feature but expects it to pay off as he learns which of his clients and contacts also have it. To simplify matters, he uses Linx Communications' LinxConnect service. This lets him use one phone number for all his calls, messages and faxes. An incoming call rings both his office phone and his mobile phone so he can get the call whether he's inside, outside or traveling. Fees for a service like this start at about $20 per month after the initial setup cost. As entrepreneurs know, a missed call can mean missed business; and nobody really enjoys playing the game of voice-mail tag.
When it comes to buying hardware, from mobile phones to wireless routers, there are many ways to save money without cutting corners or compromising on quality. Start by doing a bit of research. Look for buyers' reviews online, at sites like CNET.com and Amazon.com, and ask your entrepreneurial peers about their equipment experiences. Or you can do as Oosterhous did and bring in an outside consultant. Things to look for include ease of installation, the quality and responsiveness of technical support, and hardware reliability. You don't want to realize several months after the purchase that your phone doesn't have a long enough battery life or that your router crashes at inopportune moments.
Once you're ready to buy, compare prices locally and online (don't forget the shipping costs) to find the best deal. Rebates are commonly available on top-brand Wi-Fi products, so check the Sunday ads. The same goes for mobile phones and wireless expansion cards for PDAs. Because of his experience, friends often ask Michael for advice on wireless purchasing. He suggests, "Buy a little bit more than you need so it will last a little bit longer, but don't go crazy. You've got to be able to justify it." There's a lot of competition out there in the wireless marketplace, so take advantage of it to find quality products at prices that will fit your budget.
For Oosterhous, wireless technology has been a big boost to her homebased business. "It makes it more efficient because it allows me to get it right the first time," she says. "We've been able to do more business. Every sale is important." Increased productivity and efficiency are the ultimate complements when it comes to business technology. Since most home-office setups are fairly straightforward, implementing wireless technologies is not a daunting proposition. Use your small size to your advantage, and let technology help make your business stronger. Once you've gone wireless, you won't ever want to go back.
Before You Leap
We know entrepreneurs like to research technology and hardware before they buy. As usual, there's no more convenient place to read up on wireless than online. Starting with Wi-Fi, visit the Wi-Fi Alliance for information on designing a Wi-Fi network and wireless security. Wi-Fi Planet and Wi-Fi Networking News are places to keep up on the latest news and announcements. When you head out on the road and need a hot spot at your destination, visit WiFinder to find both pay- and free-access locations.
For more on Bluetooth products, using Bluetooth and related news, visit the official Bluetooth site. Mac users can get information specific to their computers at the Apple Bluetooth site. These sites are good places for people who are unfamiliar with the technology to get ideas on how to incorporate it into their home offices.
Whittling your way through the masses of mobile phones on the market is another matter. User reviews can be a good way to narrow down your choices. Phone Scoop has an extensive database of information and reviews. You can search by carrier or look up a specific model. Take a little time to do your research, and it will pay off in the long run.