Wireless Networking: Are You Ready?
By Larry Seltzer

(FORTUNE Small Business) – When I wanted to set up a network for my home office, my wife thrilled to the prospect of my drilling holes in the wall and dragging wires through them. We're still, um, talking about it. Wired networking is cheap after the initial investment in running the actual cables, it's fast, and it's proven. But as I am finding out, sometimes it's just not feasible.

Wireless networking has emerged as an intriguing alternative to torn-up walls and pulled cables. It's more practical if you're renting a space temporarily (or because your wife won't let you rewire). Wireless also has a decidedly "cool" factor that cannot be underestimated, especially if you're regularly in the business of meeting clients in your offices. Roaming around while still connected to the office network and the Internet never fails to impress--and can make meetings more productive. Before you rush out and get all you need to go wireless, consider the issues surrounding which technology to go with, setup complications, and the cost and expandability of it.

There are two main standards that matter in the wireless networking world: 802.11b and HomeRF. 802.11b is faster, has better range, and is generally much more expensive than HomeRF. Both 802.11b and HomeRF use the same 2.4GHz transmission band used by some cordless phones and microwave ovens, so you might have interference problems in close proximity to these devices.

Wireless is definitely tricky when it comes to where it will work. I've had better luck with some products than others. Before you go whole hog with a wireless setup, test it with just one machine where you plan to use it to make sure it works. For example, I have a friend whose walls are plaster on wire mesh, and wireless is a no-go.

When you go shopping for a small business wireless network, many of the products you run into will be home networking products with "small business" on the box. The main problem with that is that HomeRF products, for example, generally won't support Windows NT (although most of them will soon support Windows 2000). The Intel AnyPoint Home Network, which despite the name is also marketed to small business, only works with Windows 98 and Windows ME, with no current way to connect these systems to an existing wired Windows NT network.

The software to configure these devices is also unpolished. I've set up hundreds of networks and I had a hard time with these systems. The problems all have to do with integrating the wireless network with an existing wired one, so if that's not what you're doing, don't worry about it. The Proxim Symphony Cordless Networking Suite mitigates these problems somewhat. The $199 Symphony-HRF Cordless Gateway plugs into your existing Ethernet hub and easily makes the physical connection to an existing wired Ethernet network. You still need to use some pretty obscure software to get the two networks to connect, but I got it working with help from the vendor. Symphony has both a PC Card ($129) and a USB-based adapter ($99) for the PCs that you connect wirelessly.

Most businesses don't need to set up everyone on wireless, just a few systems, and Symphony is a good solution for that. I was able to run the Proxim card on my Windows 2000 systems in addition to Windows 9x, although the configuration software only runs on Win9x, so you need at least one of those systems.

HomeRF has "Home" in it for a reason: The peak bandwidth on the wireless network is a bare 1.6 megabits per second, and 11Mbps is the peak for 802.11b. If you have more than about three systems really hitting on a HomeRF network segment, everyone will begin to wonder what's wrong. Compared with 100Mbps of cheap wired Ethernet systems, wireless is definitely still riding in the slow lane.

Few of you will find that wireless networks can replace wired ones, but they don't need to. They can do a great job extending the wired network to areas where wires don't easily go; that way you keep most of the traffic on the wires, where bandwidth is cheap. As for me, I've told my wife that the Proxim product is tops on my birthday wish list.

--Larry Seltzer