Free At Last

Is your home office a network nightmare-piles of wires, holes in the wall and cabling for everything but the kitchen sink? Take it all wireless!
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the June 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

If you've resisted pitches from companies that want to wire your home from basement to attic for networking and other technological advances because you just can't afford it, here's an alternative: wireless home Local Area Networks (LANs).

Instead of connecting all your computers individually to a phone line (which wired LAN kits require), wireless home LAN products connect just one PC, server or laptop to the phone line, and the rest of your networked computers feed off of that. "[Wireless home LANs are] great for home offices that need flexibility for a mix of laptops and desktops," says Dan Swee-ney, spokesperson for Intel.
Using radio frequencies to communicate between computers, this rather new breed of home LAN means you don't have to drill holes in your walls or ceilings to string cables nor lay them along the floor. You also won't need a phone jack for every computer on the network. With a wireless home LAN, you can surf the Net from your sofa on portables and desktops while simultaneously using a common ISP via one modem along a single phone line or with a super-fast cable modem.

Wireless-based networking products are still in their infancy right now, according to senior analyst Michael Wolf of Cahners In-Stat, a Scottsdale, Arizona, high-tech market research company. But big-name manufacturers like Compaq, Intel and industry leader Proxim believe wireless home LANs will be flying off store shelves once buyers become aware of their benefits. One of the major advantages of wireless LANs is that you can bring your laptop home from the office and not have to worry about hooking it up physically to your home LAN. You can even take it back to the office for weekday work without bothering to disconnect any cables. So if your home office includes laptops and desktops, wireless is the way to go. However, if all your home computers happen to be next to phone jacks, and if you don't need to work in different parts of the house with your notebook, you might prefer to just keep your wired network system, which is less expensive than wireless versions.

In addition to freedom from fixed cable connections, wireless systems provide the kind of mobility and roaming capability you get from your cell phone, allowing you to wander the house and yard without dragging wires with you. And because radio waves can penetrate walls and other obstacles, users have the option of networking on a laptop, say, from the porch to the desktop in the den or to the PC upstairs, all while transferring files and sharing peripherals. If you need to move your home computers from room to room as your business expands, the network will move right along with you.

Jill Amadio is a freelance writer in Newport Beach, California, who has covered technology for 10 years.

All The Parts

A standard wireless home LAN configuration consists of adaptor cards, which fit into slots inside each PC or portable. The Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) and Peripheral Component Interface (PCI) adaptors for wireless LANs are equipped with either tiny, fixed, rugged antennas or 1.5-foot long string antennas for sending and receiving radio signals broadcast over the air. These wireless networks support small groups of users within an average range of between 300 and 500 feet indoors, and up to 1,000 feet outdoors. Diamond's HomeFree Desktop Pac, for example, can handle up to 16 computers up to 150 feet away from each other in separate rooms, but at that distance, it's certainly more sensible to add an access point (AP).

APs act as routers, or bridges, through which all data flows. An AP connects wireless and wired networks and is always on. Proxim's RangeLAN2, for instance, connects Ethernet and Token Ring networks to wireless networks.

Sorting Out the Standards

Most of today's wireless LAN radio waves send signals along the 2.4GHz unlicensed frequency, using the established 802.11 international telecommu-nications standard. Backed by leading equipment and software providers, 802.11 is used in the majority of LANs and is slated to become the most common and popular standard by year-end. However, some manufacturers currently use different standards proprietary to their companies-although they may eventually switch to 802.11. Netgear's wireless LAN, for instance, uses its own proprietary protocol and includes access point software-making its $249 (street) price tag for a complete system one of the lowest on the market.

Another advantage: Security features are built in to most wireless LANs, which are considered safer than the average LANs. Those encryption techniques, originally developed for military use, make it very difficult for eavesdroppers to listen in.

Nobody's Perfect

You guessed it: There's another downside to home wireless LANs, aside from their higher cost. Specifically, low-end wireless home LANs are slower than their wired counterparts. The average data-transfer speed on most of the products on the market has been 1Mbps, compared to 10Mbps for wired versions. If you're sharing small files and using a 56Kbps modem for the Internet, the 1Mbps is probably fine, says Patrick Lo, Netgear's service president and general manager. But if you need to process multimedia files with digital photos and complicated graphics, you'll need a network that is at least 10Mbps.

Some companies which initially came out with 1Mbps products are upgrading to 11Mbps, but be forewarned: Some 11Mbps products may actually perform 2Mbps or 3Mpbs slower the further away you are when you operate between com-puters. So don't be surprised if the signal gets weaker when you extend beyond 50 feet or more.

Granted, the initial investment for wireless LAN hardware is considerably higher than the cost of wired LAN hardware. A wired LAN adaptor card averages $60, while a wireless LAN adaptor card can set you back about $199-although Intel's 1.6Mbps AnyPoint sells for $119 (street) and Apple's 11Mbps AirPort wireless cards will run you $99 (street)-so prices vary.

APs for IBM clones cost between $600 and $1,000, with Apple's base station priced nicely at $299 (street). Dell's 11Mbps adaptors require no access point because they run the LAN as a peer-to-peer network, charging $139 (street) for notebook cards and $179 (street) for desktop cards. SOHOware's NetBlaster wireless bridge costs $299 (street).

In contrast, you can buy a wired networking kit for four or five computers for about $125. But don't forget that you save on installation expenses for wireless systems because they don't require you to buy extra cables or extension cords, and most are so simple to set up you won't need professional installation. Most kits include step-by-step video instructions on a CD-ROM and free tech support. Many, including WebGear's Aviator PRO model, automatically configure the networking parameters for you.

Are You Ready?

After digesting the technical details involved in wireless home LANs, here's some extra advice for your next step:

  • Do your homework and stay with proven name brands.
  • Ask whether the company offers both phone and Internet support.
  • Stay with technologies and products that are standards-based for compatibility with other standards-based products.
  • If your business is growing rapidly, look to the future and choose as high a speed as possible.

Shopping List


(800) 538-9696
1 card11Mbps/
300 feet/
$99Base Station
WL100, WL200
(281) 514-0484
1 card (WL100, PC) or
1 card (WL200, PCI)
300 feet/

Windows 95, 98
NT 4.0, 2000, CE/

WL300: $125
Base station
WL400: $899
Wireless Home, LAN
(800) 338-8542
1 card11Mbps/
150 feet/

Windows 95, 98

PC card: $179
Notebook card: $139

HomeFree Desktop Pac
(800) 468-5846

2 cards1Mbps/
150 feet/
2.4Ghz ISM Band

Windows 95, 98/
propriety technology

$149.95 (for package)N/A
AnyPoint Wireless Home Network
(877) 649-5817
1 card & cabling1.6Mbps/
150 feet/

Windows 95, 98/

PC card: $119
Notebook card: $129
Wireless Adapter
1 card11Mbps/
200 feet indoors,
300 feet outdoors/

Windows 95, 98/
proprietary technology

PC card: $249N/A
Symphony Cordless Card
(800) 229-1630
1 card1.6Mbps/
150 feet/

Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0
Open Air

PC card: $129
Notebook card: $149
(800) 632-1118
1 card2Mbps/
250 feet/

Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0/

PC or notebook card: $189NetBlaster
base station:
(408) 271-9888
1 card2Mbps/
250 feet indoors/

Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0, 2000/

PC card: Varies
Notebook card: $80
ZoomAir Wireless Networking Card
(800) 631-3116
1 card11Mbps/
300 feet indoors/
1,000 feet outdoors/

Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0/
802.11 DSSS

PC or PCI card: $179AP 128 (access point):
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