Small businesses warming to wireless LANs

By Toni Kistner, Network World |  Networking

The 802.11b may never become a household name, but it's not just for the enterprise anymore, either.

As costs come down and ease of use improves, small businesses are discovering they can bypass wired Ethernet LANs, as well as extend network connectivity to the home, client sites and public spaces such as airports and hotels. And vendors are responding. Having gained a strong foothold in the enterprise -- with a 20% penetration today -- 802.11b vendors are now turning their attention to the small office market.

It's understandable that vendors such as 3Com, Cisco and Agere Systems (formerly Lucent Microelectronics Group) didn't see the small office as easy pickings right away. Wireless connotes mobility. Why would 10 people who spend all day in a single office need mobility? But in the small office, it's not the individual workers who are mobile, but the office itself.

"Small offices tend to be dynamic as far as size and location," says Ron Seide, product line manager for Cisco's Wireless Networking business unit. "They're small but growing and tend to move around a lot. With a wireless LAN infrastructure, when the office moves, the infrastructure can be loaded up, taken to the next location, then rapidly redeployed, maintaining connectivity and the customer's investment."

While Gartner predicts 802.11b penetration in the corporate LAN will reach 50% by the end of next year, Gartner analyst Mostafa Maarouf sees 802.11b technology heading into the smaller markets quickly. Today, Maarouf says, 20% of notebook PCs are sold into small offices of up to 19 people. "That's low, but not insignificant," he adds. What's more, by 2005, Gartner predicts that 95% of notebook PCs will be 802.11b-enabled.

"Compared to wired Ethernet, which is expensive when you include the wiring, 802.11b is a pretty compelling alternative for eight or 10 people," Maarouf says.

In shopping for 802.11b hardware, ease of use and price are most important for the small office. You'll also want to consider security and management features, and performance. While you won't get the throughput speeds of wired Ethernet, 802.11b's 11M bit/sec rated speed (about 6M bit/sec in actuality) is plenty of pipe for a 10-person office connected via DSL or analog modem.

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