February 09, 2001, 11:57 AM — IT'S THE WIRELESS AGE. Prices continue to drop on the latest IEEE 802.11b-compatible wireless LAN devices. And new HiperLAN 20Mbps products are just over the horizon. Given these facts, it's easy to understand how the temptation to move to a cable-free network will increase in the coming year. But corporations need to take a deep breath and look at all sides of the technologies before they begin their wireless rollouts, says Stan Schatt, vice president for networking and communications at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group.
Companies need not avoid wireless LAN technologies completely, Schatt says, but they should be cautious, especially when considering the devices for mission-critical applications. For instance, he cautions, while 802.11b may claim 11Mbps speeds, its actual throughput is more likely barely half that. "And if someone is sending large documents, you can tie up pretty much all the bandwidth," he notes.
And, he adds, guaranteeing quality of service (QoS) over wireless connections is a task still in its infancy. QoS tools on today's wireless hardware are often crude or nonexistent.
Then there are other issues, such as security. While you can use 128-bit encryption on your wireless channels, doing so creates a performance hit. "And there's always the threat of interference," Schatt says, from other wireless networks in the same building, cell phones -- or even microwave ovens. (Dedicated disrupters of the industrial sabotage type may even be able to fashion simple devices that could disable entire networks.) And 5Ghz devices that will avoid some common interference issues are still a couple years off.
Still, Schatt says, there are good places for wireless solutions now. Mobile populations, such as sales teams, could carry wireless connections and attach to resources in different offices quickly and easily. Other possibilities include nursing stations and warehouses where employees want constant network access with the freedom to move where their jobs take them. And in offices where it may be difficult or impossible to disrupt walls (such as sites that still contain asbestos), wireless provides a low-impact networking solution that makes old cable technologies look obsolete.