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LAN of the Free

If you're feeling a little tied down at the office, give wireless a whirl.
August 1, 2002
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/53728

Free your data, and the rest will follow. There's no reason for you or your employees to be shackled to your desks. If you like roaming around the office without dropping your connections, then we have just one question to ask you: Why haven't you installed a wireless LAN yet? They're fast, affordable and fairly easy to set up on your own.

Convenience is just one reason to invest in a wireless LAN. You also don't want to go through the trouble and expense of putting in a wired LAN if you're just leasing or renting your office space. Adding workstations or laptops to a wireless network is quicker and cheaper, and right now, there's no easier way to access your network and share a broadband Internet connection than through the air.

Wireless networks used to come with an 11Mbps speed limit--in tech parlance, IEEE 802.11b or Wi-Fi. Now there's a newer kid on the block: IEEE 802.11a (better known as Wi-Fi5), which is capable of speeds up to 54Mbps. Be aware the two versions aren't compatible, the networks are more expensive and not everyone needs speed. Manufacturers are working to perfect equipment that will let you switch between a and b. If you've installed an 802.11b system and are considering upgrading to or adding an 802.11a network, keep an eye out.

If you already have your bucks invested in b and it's working out, you might want to wait until the tech pixie dust settles before switching protocols. At a mere $199 (all prices street) for the 3Com Wireless LAN Access Point 2000, $149 for the Linksys version, your IEEE 802.11b network is inexpensive to expand.

Our "Shopping List" includes access points for Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi5. An access point is a piece of hardware that acts as a wireless hub. Each network computer will need either a PCI card for PCs or a PCMCIA for laptops. Expect to find these components in the $100 to $200 range. An Intel 802.11a Pro/Wireless 5000 PCI adapter runs $200, while the laptop card comes in at $160.

Many factors can affect the performance of a wireless LAN. Speeds decrease the farther you are from the access point, and obstructions such as walls can also cause problems. Larger offices might require multiple access points. The older 11Mbps Wi-Fi standard is known to suffer interference from other devices, such as cell phones that share its 2.4GHz band. Wi-Fi5 has the advantage of operating over the uncrowded 5GHz band.

The reality of a wireless LAN is that your data is whizzing through the air, and you need to be sure it's protected. Anyone could enter your LAN space by intercepting communications. Your first line of defense is the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption standard that comes with wireless LAN devices. But WEP is far from perfect, so you're best off with a virtual private network to protect your data. Some of the more expensive products also include proprietary encryption.

We've covered basic access points, but more advanced hardware is also available. D-Link, for example, offers the $199 D-Link DI-714 wireless gateway with four Ethernet ports, a serial port for a backup analog modem and an integrated firewall and router. Other products feature routers, security options or printer servers. Whatever your office demands, there's a wireless solution that will make working easier. So say goodbye to your cables--you won't even miss them.

Shopping List
Are you a bona fide "LAN"-lubber? Choose the best one to suit your needs and it'll be smooth sailing from there.

COMPANY/MODELCONTACTTYPEFEATURESSTREET PRICE
3COM
Wireless LAN Access Point 2000
(800) NET-3COM
www.3com.com
WI-FIWeb-Based configuration$199
BELKIN
Wireless 802.11B Access Point
(800) 223-5546
www.belkin.com
WI-FIProprietary one-step-setup software$149
BELKIN
Wireless 802.11B Notebook Card
(800) 223-5546
www.belkin.com
WI-FIProprietary one-step-setup software$89
D-LINK
DWL-900AP+
(800) 326-1688
www.dlink.com
WI-FIConfigure as bridge or client$129
INTEL
Pro/Wireless 5000 Access Point
(4800) 538-3373
www.intel.com
WI-FI5Web-Based configuration, VPN recommended$380
LINKSYS
WAP 11 Instant Wireless Network Acces Point
(800) LINKSYS
www.linksys.com
WI-FIWindows diagnostic tools, Free tech support$149
NETGEAR
HE102 Wireless Access Point
(408) 907-8000
www.netgear.com
WI-FI572mbps turbo mode, supports up 64 users$429
PROXIM
Skyline 802.11A Access Point
(800) 229-1630
www.promix.com
WI-FI5Data rates up to 108mbps, connects to ethernet network$449
SMC NETWORKS
EZ Connect Wireless Acces Point
(800) SMC-4YOU
www.smc.com
WI-FI5Web-Based configuration, 72mbps turbo mode$365