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Wireless Woes? What a Shock! Today's hottest technology has a bevy of problems.
By David Lidsky

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Wireless is the best thing ever to happen to Internet access, say the experts. Sure, and the Corvair revolutionized the sporty compact car. Spinning out of control was a mere side effect to be endured by those who embraced the cutting edge of technology.

Wireless networks aren't likely to go the way of the Corvair, although the rooting sections of each subculture share the annoying trait of severely minimizing the problems of what they love. There's no denying that it's cool to be walking around or sitting in a conference room, your den, or a restaurant and be connected to the Net. Or to have your PC send music to your stereo via the airwaves. But what few people bring up are the nasty side effects: Security, interference, and subsequent installation troubles are all little-discussed hurdles you must deal with. Be prepared for dizzy spells, bouts of extreme frustration, and maybe hives while investigating the promising technology.

Security is one of those things that no one likes talking about--particularly me--so I'll tread lightly here, but the first issue is that a typical Wi-Fi network is about as secure as Jimmy Kimmel's new job. (Wi-Fi is the marketing moniker for wireless networks using the 802.11b standard.) Most wireless networks ship with the security features turned off, and no one bothers to turn them on. That makes it all too easy for your neighbors or someone in the parking lot of your office to get a free ride with almost no effort whatsoever, siphoning your bandwidth and perusing your files if they desire. "A real scandal is coming," warns John Ross, author of The Book of Wi-Fi.

The reason no one bothers with the security features is that you'd have more fun sticking your face in a blender than configuring them. The popular view perpetuated by most manufacturers of wireless gear is that you can install a wireless network yourself. I suppose, but probably not securely. "You're using the air to transmit information, and you can't control where it goes," says Chris Bolinger, a wireless networking product manager at Cisco. "You have to bring in a trusted advisor on security to look at your needs and pick the solution best for you." The baseline wireless security protection to date has been woefully inferior and easily trumped by a Pringles-can antenna and hacker tools you could find in a flash using Google. I'm happy to report that a much safer scheme will be available this spring (known as Wi-Fi Protected Access), but even that may not be enough. If you're going to use the wireless Internet from home or the airport to connect to the office network, you'll need additional protection, like a virtual private network. Suddenly what seemed so easy has turned into a bad light-bulb joke.

Wireless networks are also susceptible to interference from other devices that share the same 2.4GHz frequency. Your cordless phone is not being tapped--that clicking sound simply means you can't talk on the phone and work at the same time without some annoyance. You'll also encounter problems as wireless networks proliferate. If neighboring offices, homes, and public areas also go wireless, your network's speed will erode significantly. The only answer is to upgrade to an 802.11a wireless network (which operates in the 5GHz frequency, less populated for now but naturally more expensive) or to continue to add antennas, with each one covering less space. In other words, you'll be singing the computer owner's blues: "Why do you do me like you do?"

For all the wireless chatter in the air, Wi-Fi is still a very immature product. The technology is where dial-up was a decade ago, when you had to understand a thicket of jargon to go online. Once everything's up and running, though, a wireless network is a joy. Just watch out for the hairpin curves on the way.