Firms might soon view wireless LANs as cheaper than copper

When setting up an e-business or adding a remote office or workgroup to an existing operation, the cost of properly wiring the building for the added network can impact the budget just as heavily as the cost of the computer hardware.

For example, enterprises can find themselves paying several hundred thousand dollars in electrical contracting and related fees to add new users as they expand their operations into another location, according to industry experts.

But as wireless technology begins to stabilize and come within reach of a wider range of e-businesses, more companies will begin considering wireless LANs as a less expensive alternative to installing copper wiring, as well as a faster way to set up shop.

“It’s definitely a faster alternative,” says Gemma Paulo, a research analyst at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Cahners In-Stat Group. Paulo points out that although a wired NIC (network interface card) is still cheaper than a wireless NIC, many companies are going with wireless LANs first, and sticking with them “even if they do go wired, because employees want to be able to roam around the campus.”

“[Wireless LANs] seem like the trend in networking,” Paulo adds. “And it’s a great way to keep your workers working, because many airports and hotels now offer wireless interfaces so your employees can stay on-line.”

Phil Belanger, vice-president of Wayport, an Austin, Tex.-based provider of wireless LAN services to airports, such as Dallas/Ft.Worth International, believes an early investment in wireless is smart planning for the long term.

“Wireless is more expensive if you just consider the adapter cost,” Belanger says, “but in the wired world you have the cost of cabling – and we figured that if you moved once, after that one move wireless would have been a less expensive first investment.”

Belanger says wireless LANs are also easier to manage and that when employees from remote offices “return to the mothership,” they don’t have to worry about finding a room with an open LAN jack if the company headquarters is already running a wireless network.

Helping to bring wireless LANs within reach of more e-businesses, IBM Corp. recently introduced new ThinkPad iSeries notebook computers with integrated 802.11b wireless LAN antennas installed within the screen casing. Compatible with IBM’s High Rate Wireless LAN Access Point, which serves as the base station transmitter/receiver, the inexpensive notebooks, which start at approximately US$1,400, can almost instantly be deployed and set into operation in a nearby office extension or a remote office equipped with little more than wall-based electrical sockets and an incoming T1 line.

“You can have over 200 clients on one Access Point or less, depending on if the users are running any multimedia content. And the range extends thousands of feet, depending on the layout of the building,” explains Ron Sperano, the program director for mobile market development at Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM.

Dell Computer Corp. will also begin shipping integrated 802.11b wireless LAN technology within its Latitude line of portable computers, according to a source close to the Round Rock, Tex.-based company. Dell, which has been offering wireless LAN NIC cards since last November, will introduce the new Latitude notebooks this month, with plans to add integrated wireless LAN technology to its Inspiron line of portable computers in the near future.

Both IBM and Dell offer Bluetooth technology, a low-power, low-range radio device for personal connectivity, alongside their 802.11b LAN options. Recent concerns over the maturity of both 802.11b and Bluetooth technologies, which operate on the same broadcast band, brought to light the fact that Bluetooth still has two to five years of development left, while 802.11b awaits two additional draft standards addressing the problems of data-transmission collisions with Bluetooth, and other performance issues, according to Simon Ellis, marketing chairman for the Bluetooth Special Interest Group.

Nevertheless, Brian Grimm, a spokesman for the Wireless Ethernet Capability Alliance (WECA) says the time to act is now.

“Look at it this way: We worked through the development of the 386 to the 486 to the Pentium. Things will always evolve, but we’ve had 50 major companies join us just this year alone, and all the big boys are in,” Grimm says.

Mountain View, Calif.-based WECA, whose members include such industry giants as Compaq, Intel, Toshiba, and Cisco, certifies wireless LAN interoperability among its member companies, granting a seal of approval to devices that comply, Grimm says.