Go Wireless and Work From Anywhere in Your Home

Set up shop on the back porch? A wireless home network boosts productivity and makes life a lot easier.

By Amanda C. Kooser • Nov 16, 2004

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It's a sunny 72 degrees outside, and that bench on your backpatio looks mighty inviting. This would be a great time to pick upyour 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 wirelessnetwork, you wouldn't have to think twice about it. There aregood reasons why wireless technologies are booming in home officesacross the nation.

Your home-office wireless possibilities go beyond just a Wi-Finetwork. There's a 99.9 percent chance that you already have amobile 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 abouttechnology for technology's sake, but about increasing yourproductivity and making your workday a more flexible and enjoyableexperience.

Karen Oosterhous, 32, publisher of FirebrandBooks, has been running her business from a home office in AnnArbor, Michigan, for a year and a half. She installed an 802.11bwireless network with a little help, bringing in outside technicalexperts to assess her needs, recommend equipment and set up thesystem. "I do think it's important to have someone comeout and look at your setup and recommend what's best for you. Alittle investment on the front end pays dividends on the backend," says Oosterhous. It cost her $300 for the experts'time, plus the cost of hardware. For entrepreneurs who don'tfeel comfortable installing Wi-Fi, bringing in outside help removesthe headaches and gets the job done right.

One of the benefits Oosterhous enjoys is having her laserprinter wirelessly networked so either of her desktop Macs or herIBM laptop can print directly to it. On occasion, she brings in anadministrative assistant who works on the laptop in a separateworking area. The wireless network lets the assistant have easyfile and printing access. Entrepreneurs who bring in temporary orpermanent 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 technicaladvisors. Peter Phillips, vice president of marketing atconnectivity device manufacturer SocketCommunications, says, "Often you get what you pay for inthe wireless arena in terms of reliability, ease of use and setup.A lot of times, going with a fairly well-known brand isimportant." While a tight budget is a big consideration, agood warranty and solid, 24-hour tech support can be critical,especially if you're setting up the system yourself. Thoughinstallation and ease of use have improved, entrepreneurs dealingwith older hardware and operating systems stand a good chance ofneeding technical support at some point in the process.

Wi-Fi Flavors

One of your first decisions will be what type of Wi-Fi to gowith. The two most common options are 802.11b and 802.11g. Manyentrepreneurs choose 802.11b because it's been around longer,is less expensive, and still has enough bandwidth to handle normaloffice functions and share a typical DSL or cable broadbandconnection. Phillips also cites the compatibility of "b"adapters when you head out to Wi-Fi hot spots in airports andcoffeehouses. They're almost all 802.11b. Home-officeentrepreneurs who need to stream high-bandwidth applications likevideo may consider spending the extra few dollars more for802.11g.

Michael Goff, 36, partner in PR firm Goff Communications,along with his wife, Marcia, 36, went with Linksys 802.11bequipment. He was comfortable installing the equipment himself andhas found quite a few uses for it. Working from a home office oftenmeans the lines between business and personal time are blurred. TheGoffs have two young boys added into the equation, and wirelesshelps them balance both sides. "We have one laptop that we letthe kids on," says Michael. "We grab the laptop and siton the couch and surf to PBSkids.org with them in a morecomfortable environment that's removed from theoffice."

The Goffs are also able to take advantage of nice days inHolliston, Massachusetts, and take their work out onto the deck. Tomake sure their Wi-Fi signal is strong throughout the house, theyinstalled a signal booster. They can surf and catch up on e-mailjust as well from the kitchen while getting the kids ready in themorning. But it's not just in and around the home that Wi-Ficomes in handy. Both the Goffs and Oosterhous find themselves onthe road, attending trade shows or meeting with clients. Besidescoffeehouses and airports, Wi-Fi hot spots are popping up in allsorts of places. Oosterhous has one type of hot spot in particularthat she recommends: "Libraries are my favorite becausethey're very affordable," she says. "If you're onthe road and you can find a library, that's likegold."

Oosterhous subscribes to T-Mobile's Wi-Fi hot-spot service. She saysthe roughly $70 per month is well worth the expense: "It'svery affordable compared to possibly missing a businessopportunity." You don't have to be in a far-off city toenjoy the flexibility that Wi-Fi in a laptop gives you, though.Just getting out of the house and heading to a local Wi-Fi-equippedcoffeehouse can keep you from going stir crazy. The cost varieswith location and service. Most offer hourly rates or monthly oryearly subscriptions. In addition to T-Mobile, Boingo Wireless isanother leading player.

Laptops and desktops are obvious candidates for attaching to aWi-Fi network, but a less obvious choice is your PDA. SaysPhillips, "We find that a lot of people are using their PDAsas an extension of their home-office environment." MichaelGoff added a CompactFlash Wi-Fi card to his Dell Axim Pocket PC. Headmits it may be a bit of overkill for his needs, but he enjoys theflexibility of being able to check his e-mail on a small devicewithout dealing with starting up or running the batteries down onhis laptop. You can add a wireless card to your Pocket PC or laptopfor between $50 and $100. Going this route also gives you a quickway to synchronize your data between your PDA and desktop withoutwires.

What About Bluetooth?

We all know Bluetooth is out there, but it's still prettyearly to assess the impact it will have. So what what does it cost,and exactly what is it good for? Home-office entrepreneurs on abudget need to know their wireless investment will pay off in savedtime, productivity and convenience. The ROI for Wi-Fi is easy tosee, 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 thatlessens background noise and makes voice transmissionclearer--great for mobile users, who are often in noisyenvironments. For $99, you can get a headset like Jabra'sFreeSpeak 250 with up to eight hours of talk time. It's notchump change, but keeping your hands on the wheel and free fromtangles is invaluable.

For an example of how Bluetooth creates small conveniences thatmean a lot, check out Socket Communications' $149 Cordless 56KModem. While many home offices have switched to broadband, thosestill using dial-up can use this Bluetooth device to untether theirlaptop or desktop from the phone line. If you travel a lot, youknow hotels often place phone jacks in inconvenient places. Adevice like this lets you use dial-up Internet access from anywherein the room. When it comes to Bluetooth, your buying decision willbe based on how much you value the convenience and how muchproductivity you expect to gain.

Play It Safe

The Goffs also use a wireless computer security system developedby one of their clients, Ensure Technologies. The XyLoc uses wirelessradio technology to keep track of the user's proximity to thecomputer and locks it down when you're away. Home-office userswho keep sensitive data on their desktops or have to take theirlaptops to client sites could find a use for the $179 XyLoc Solo.This kind of device isn't for everyone, but it illustrates therange of wireless solutions available to entrepreneurs.

No discussion of security is complete without looking atsecuring your wireless network. Your first line of defense is toenable the WEP encryption that comes built into your equipment.Most users have to plug in the encryption code to each piece ofhardware they connect. This helps keep snoopers out of yournetwork. "It's more a good policy vs. paranoia," saysMichael.

Another technology picking up speed is Bluetooth. As acompliment to Wi-Fi, it's finding a niche as a wire-replacementtechnology. With a range of about 10 yards, a top use for Bluetoothis mobile phone headsets. You can drive or just walk around andtalk with no dangling wires. For very mobile entrepreneurs who neede-mail access no matter where they are, Phillips recommends using aPDA Bluetooth card to connect to a Bluetooth-enabled phone andcheck your e-mail wherever you have cell service. If this appealsto you, look for built-in Bluetooth when purchasing your nextphone.

Speaking of phones, the Goffs recently switched over to NextelCommunications' walkie-talkie phones. Michael says he'sstill getting used to the instant-connection feature but expects itto pay off as he learns which of his clients and contacts also haveit. To simplify matters, he uses Linx Communications' LinxConnect service.This lets him use one phone number for all his calls, messages andfaxes. An incoming call rings both his office phone and his mobilephone so he can get the call whether he's inside, outside ortraveling. Fees for a service like this start at about $20 permonth after the initial setup cost. As entrepreneurs know, a missedcall can mean missed business; and nobody really enjoys playing thegame of voice-mail tag.

Smart Shopping

When it comes to buying hardware, from mobile phones to wirelessrouters, there are many ways to save money without cutting cornersor compromising on quality. Start by doing a bit of research. Lookfor buyers' reviews online, at sites like CNET.com andAmazon.com, and ask your entrepreneurial peers about theirequipment experiences. Or you can do as Oosterhous did and bring inan outside consultant. Things to look for include ease ofinstallation, the quality and responsiveness of technical support,and hardware reliability. You don't want to realize severalmonths after the purchase that your phone doesn't have a longenough battery life or that your router crashes at inopportunemoments.

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, socheck the Sunday ads. The same goes for mobile phones and wirelessexpansion cards for PDAs. Because of his experience, friends oftenask Michael for advice on wireless purchasing. He suggests,"Buy a little bit more than you need so it will last a littlebit longer, but don't go crazy. You've got to be able tojustify it." There's a lot of competition out there in thewireless marketplace, so take advantage of it to find qualityproducts at prices that will fit your budget.

For Oosterhous, wireless technology has been a big boost to herhomebased business. "It makes it more efficient because itallows me to get it right the first time," she says."We've been able to do more business. Every sale isimportant." Increased productivity and efficiency are theultimate complements when it comes to business technology. Sincemost home-office setups are fairly straightforward, implementingwireless technologies is not a daunting proposition. Use your smallsize to your advantage, and let technology help make your businessstronger. Once you've gone wireless, you won't ever want togo back.

Before You Leap

We know entrepreneurs like to research technology and hardwarebefore they buy. As usual, there's no more convenient place toread up on wireless than online. Starting with Wi-Fi, visit theWi-Fi Alliancefor information on designing a Wi-Fi network and wireless security.Wi-FiPlanet and Wi-Fi Networking News are places to keep up on thelatest news and announcements. When you head out on the road andneed a hot spot at your destination, visit WiFinder to findboth pay- and free-access locations.

For more on Bluetooth products, using Bluetooth and relatednews, visit the official Bluetooth site. Mac users can get informationspecific to their computers at the AppleBluetooth site. These sites are good places for people who areunfamiliar with the technology to get ideas on how to incorporateit into their home offices.

Whittling your way through the masses of mobile phones on themarket is another matter. User reviews can be a good way to narrowdown your choices. Phone Scoop has an extensive database of informationand 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 thelong run.

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