March 07, 2001, 3:09 PM — You've got a few computers. You've got broadband Internet access. Now you want to pull everything together with a wireless network so you can share the wealth of bandwidth (not to mention printers and files) without having to run cables all over the place.
Your timing is perfect. Once scarce, extremely expensive, and tough to configure, home wireless networking products are more plentiful, affordable, and consumer-friendly than ever. With one of these setups, your small business or home can have a wireless network up and running in an hour or less. It won't be dirt cheap: Expect to pay $480 to $750 for the equipment to link two PCs to each other and the Internet. But it's a lot easier than tearing up walls to string ethernet cable; and for notebook users, having the freedom to move around in a home or small office can be worth a lot.
Before you invest in a wireless network, however, you'll have to choose between two competing standards--HomeRF and 802.11b--a potentially serious complication.
Up until now, HomeRF has been more popular--largely because 802.11b (also known as Wi-Fi) did not become widely available outside the enterprise market until late last year. Wi-Fi is rapidly catching up, however, and it dominates the latest round of products. Still, the battle is far from over, and you should investigate carefully before you choose.
Why the deluge of new Wi-Fi offerings? Probably the biggest reason is their 11-mbps speed, roughly equal to that of older, wired 10-mbps ethernet networks. In contrast, HomeRF currently runs at just 1.6 mbps, though the FCC has approved a next-generation HomeRF protocol that will support speeds of up to 10 mbps. Chips supporting this faster HomeRF are due later this year and should attract more vendors to the standard. Right now, however, Intel and Proxim are the only suppliers of complete HomeRF systems.
Other advantages of Wi-Fi include a far greater range--typically 300 to 500 feet indoors versus 150 to 300 feet for HomeRF--and a planned upgrade path to 54 mbps (although you'll likely need new hardware when that version arrives). Finally, Wi-Fi enjoys widespread use outside the home. Since numerous enterprises have 802.11b wireless networks, their employees already have Wi-Fi PC Cards for their notebooks. Several companies are beginning to offer subscription-based 802.11b Internet access in public spaces such as airports and hotel lobbies. Starbucks has said it will launch 802.11b access in its cafes this spring.
Security may be an issue for users of these public Wi-Fi networks, however, because none of the networks yet incorporate the standard's Wireless Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption algorithm. If your data is sensitive, you should take additional precautions--such as using a virtual private network (VPN) or encrypting sensitive e-mail--when using a public 802.11b network.