Is it time to cut the cables?

How do I know if we should be installing a wireless network or a wired one in our offices, and when does it make sense to have a combination of both?

During our 11 years in business we have seen wireless go from a promise, to a promising technology, to a valuable business asset. Wireless can untie you from your desk and help boost productivity. But if you decide you’re going to add wireless to your network, you must consider security at the same time.

Make sure you have a proper firewall installed first (not just a router). Some situations where wireless is appropriate include:

  • Laptop with no docking station: Wireless is a great way to “stay connected” when away from your desk with your laptop.
  • Boardroom/meeting room: Many people use laptops in meetings, and having wireless available in these meeting areas can be a great productivity booster.
  • Public courtesy Internet (with proper security): Some companies offer free Internet access to guests. This can be a great idea, but again, security is extremely important. The wireless connection must be separated from your normal connections with a firewall. Consult with a technology professional before attempting to implement courtesy wireless.

While wireless is very convenient, it is not without its drawbacks and it should not be used to replace wired connections. Rather, it should be used to supplement wired connections to add convenience and freedom for mobile users. A wireless connection is also inherently less reliable than a wired one. The technology still has a long way to go before it can match the speeds achieved by wired connections.

There are a few situations that wireless should definitely be avoided:

  • Mostly desktops: PCs rarely move around and therefore should take advantage of a faster, more reliable wired connection.
  • Laptops with a docking station: Like PCs, docking stations rarely are moved, so while docked, laptops should take advantage of a wired connection.
  • Printers: Network printers are not able to deal with connectivity issues, so it is always a good idea to use a wired connection. This is also true if you plan on using a non-network printer with a print server.
  • More than three wireless connections in the area: Access points from your neighbors can definitely interfere with your signal. If there are already more than three wireless connections in your area (you can check your laptop for nearby wireless connections), you may permanently experience unreliable or slow wireless connectivity.

Choosing your Access Point

The market has been flooded by inexpensive wireless access points, but you usually get what you pay for. HP, Cisco and Proxim have arguably the best equipment, but they also command the highest price. When choosing a wireless access point, you should look for certain features. The access point should:

  • Support Wireless G: Wireless G (as opposed to A, B, and N) is currently the standard and almost all modern laptops support it. It gives a reasonable speed that is about half that of a wired connection (but all connected users share the speed) at a reasonable signal strength. Wireless N will be out in the near future but no standards have been agreed upon yet so very few laptops support it without buying an add-in card.
  • Be an access point only: There are many devices that promise to be an access point and a switch, an access point and a firewall, or an access point and a print server. It is always best to get an access point that is only an access point. This gives you the freedom to place it where it makes the most sense signal-wise as well as reducing problems if the access point dies for some reason.
  • Support modern security: Virtually all access points support wired equivalent privacy (WEP) security, but it has proven to be very insecure. The replacement is called Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and is currently the most secure option for wireless. For larger companies, WPA can be tied in to active directory on Windows Server.

Access point placement

When placing an access point, make sure that it is as far away from electrical wiring, microwaves and 2.4 GHz wireless phones as possible, as they can seriously degrade the signal. In a larger office, multiple access points will probably be needed to cover the whole area. Access points will generally cover a diameter of about 30 metres (100 feet) depending on the material of the walls and floor. It is usually a good idea to have at least once access point per floor that you wish to cover.

Any business that has a laptop can benefit from adding wireless to their network. However, be mindful of what brand you choose. Also consider carefully how you will use the wireless connection. Wireless is a great way to supplement your current wired connections, but should not be used to replace them.

Robin Hiet-Block is the owner of NewGen Technologies in British Columbia. NewGen specializes in technology outsourcing for organizations with 5-100 employees.

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