Why Wi-Fi?

Because the computer industry is (and you soon will be) going wild over this newest way to access networks wirelessly
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the May 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Jeff Eller is no longer forced to squeeze out those last few minutes of work at the office before rushing to the airport. That's because he carries his office with him-or at least as much of it as he needs. That usually means his Apple PowerBook, which is equipped with an Apple AirPort Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) network adaptor that can be used to log on to the wireless network transceivers at half a dozen of the nation's busiest airports.

"It's slicker than all get out," says Eller, managing director of Public Strategies Inc., a public affairs consulting firm in Austin, Texas. "Now I can go to the airport two hours in advance, avoid traffic and still have the bandwidth I'm accustomed to."

Eller, who travels often, takes advantage of the growing number of Wi-Fi connections at airports and hotels nationwide, especially at his hometown's Bergstrom Airport. He arrives early, sets up in a lounge or restaurant, and starts whittling down the 250 or so e-mails he gets daily. Virtual meetings with clients via instant messaging sometimes continue right up to the departure gate.

Meanwhile, back at the office, around 20 other Public Strategies employees are using AirPort-enabled PowerBooks at their desks or in conference rooms to hook up to the company's Ethernet backbone. They are especially useful for note-taking and downloading research and slide presentations from the company's server during client meetings.

Wi-Fi-or 802.11b-is just now starting to penetrate the workplace. But it promises to bring us our product databases and price lists, maps, video-conferences, training clips, CEO pep talks and a lot more-anywhere, any time. Data transfer speeds top out at a respectable 11Mbps at the moment but should reach 54Mbps early next year.

Some of the biggest names in computing are making multimillion-dollar bets on the technology. Most wireless adaptors are sold through the system integrators and resellers of traditional networking companies-3Com, Cisco, etc. But large portable PC sellers like Compaq, Gateway and IBM also have been quick to seize the technology-none more so than Toshiba Computer Systems Group (CSG). Half Toshiba's recently introduced portables have Wi-Fi built-in, and the rest can access it through a PC Card. Toshiba is also investing heavily in installation and support services for companies of all sizes.

"I am betting big on Wi-Fi," asserts Steve Andler, vice president of marketing for Toshiba CSG. "By the end of the year, I think two-thirds of all I sell will have Wi-Fi in it. This isn't the future; this is now."

Bandwith And Connectivity

As a busy entrepreneur, you need both bandwidth and seamless connectivity everywhere you work. You have to stay in touch with team members and clients, and you must have the bandwidth to move big data files back and forth. Wi-Fi's ability to deliver both these things makes it an obvious choice.

Networks Everywhere
Here are some of the major differences and similarities
among popular wireless networks:
StandardMax Range (Feet)Speed (MBPS)Band (GHZ)
IEEE 802.11a300545
IEEE 802.11b300112.4
IEEE 802.1130022.4

Of course, people are just beginning to appreciate this mighty wielder of bandwidth and connectivity. Wi-Fi network adaptors didn't start shipping in any appreciable quantity until late 1999. A year later, sales had picked up to 2.6 million nodes annually, says research firm Cahners In-Stat Group. That figure should grow to 8 million per year by 2002-still a far cry from the large installed base (as well as annual unit shipments) of Ethernet, Fast Ethernet and wired NICs, says In-Stat industry analyst Gemma Paulo.

At 11Mbps, 802.11b is faster than the many 1Mbps peer-to-peer wired networks in place and pretty comparable to wired Ethernet client/server installations, most of which still move data around at the old 10Mbps. Except for the most esoteric applications, Public Strategies employees don't notice any appreciable differences between the company's wired Ethernet and Wi-Fi networks, reports Eller.

Of course, as with all networks, maximum bandwidth is an ideal. Traffic loads, radio interference and other types of network friction can slow down Wi-Fi transfer rates. They should get a boost to 54Mbps by the end of this year-that's when we should start to see products using the new 802.11a version of the protocol, which uses a different radio band than that used by the 2.4GHz Spread Spectrum Wi-Fi 802.11b. The 2.4GHz band is the same frequency used by other wireless LAN protocols like Home Radio Frequency and cordless phones. It's also the same band that the upcoming deluge of Bluetooth short-range wireless products will use later this year.

Wired Vs. Wireless

A new technology like Wi-Fi has to cost more than the wired Ethernet, right? That depends on how you do the accounting, says Eller.

Wi-FI Gear

3Com AirConnect 11 Mbps Wireless LAN
Apple AirPort
Avaya Communication Orinoco Wireless LAN Networking
Cisco Systems Aironet 340 and 350 Series
Compaq WL Series of Wireless LAN Products
Dell TrueMobile wireless
D-Link 11 Mb Wireless Series
Gateway Wireless Network Solutions

At $100 to $200 per PC and $500 to $1,000 per access point, the cost of wireless hardware is typically two to four times the cost of wired network components. But the higher cost of Wi-Fi hardware is offset by its ease of installation and lower main-tenance costs. And you can look forward to steep Wi-Fi adaptor price decreases of up to one-third in the following months, predicts Bradley Morse, vice president of marketing for D-Link, an Irvine, California, manufacturer of networking products.

Most desktop Wi-Fi adaptors require the opening of the PC and the use of a PCI slot. But D-Link has come out with a USB adaptor, the D-Link DWL-120, which you can find for $159 (street), further lowering IT support costs. Likewise, portable users need only slide in a $100 (street) Wi-Fi PC Card in a Type II slot.

But counting costs is shortsighted, says Eller, who's more interested in the productivity benefits. "Nobody did a cost-benefit analysis on Wi-Fi," he reports. "It worked, it was cool, it was useful, and we bought it."

Wireless networks have been around for years but have never really caught on. Part of the problem was their sub-2Mbps transfer speeds. More than that, says Paulo, there has never been the kind of marketing push and distribution infrastructures-not to mention technical support-that are behind Wi-Fi today. "People want to have some kind of assurance that all this stuff will work together," explains Paulo.

It all suggests that work is not just about the office anymore-or even the home office. Eller believes he works best out on the deck in his backyard. It's the only place his wife will let him smoke a cigar while he reads his e-mail.

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