Is upgrade to faster Wi-Fi worth it?

There’s a new Wi-Fi option waiting in the wings. Enterprise vendors such as Motorola and Cisco have recently started promoting gear that supports the 802.11n specification, which runs at about 100 megabits per second (Mbps). Meanwhile, the next generation standard–802.11n 450, based on chip sets made by Marvell, could easily top 200Mbps of throughput under ideal conditions.

Why the hype: Faster wireless networks open the door for high-definition video conferencing, video streaming and a nirvana state for a large corporation: No more wired connections. Consumer router companies such as D-Link and Trendnet are set to release 450Mbps models this year.

The real deal: Visitors to a corporate campus have three concerns: on-time meetings, freshly-brewed coffee and ubiquitous Wi-Fi access. For those in charge of IT services, there’s usually no debate over timely schedules and good coffee, but Wi-Fi is a bit of an open question. Some would argue that wireless networking at a large company opens the enterprise to network breaches and hacks. Or that it isn’t necessary:

Travelling employees can always use a mobile broadband card to access the corporate network. But employees onsite like the convenience of Wi-Fi, too. IT often gives in. What isn’t always clear is which Wi-Fi standard to use. Early adopters installed the first version, 802.11a (which runs at 25Mbps). Most companies now run 802.11g (at around 40Mpbs) and a few brave souls have standardized on 802.11n, even though the IEEE (a working group that approves wireless standards) hasn’t certified it yet. Most smartphones and legacy gear use 802.11g; increasingly, newer laptops and video gear–such as the Apple TV–support 802.11n.

For Daryl Crowley, the IT director at Ludington Hospital in Ludington, Mich., faster Wi-Fi is a major goal. But not at the expense of security. The hospital decided to upgrade its wireless network to support telepresence and electronic records management, and to use most powerful wireless security protocols. Crowley chose Motorola Enterprise WLAN products supporting 802.11n because they are very customer-focused.

“We didn’t have a target to achieve a certain speed, but we did want to get all the speed we could and have the equipment be viable for some time,” says Crowley.

Should you invest?: Wi-Fi at 450Mbps speed probably isn’t necessary for most enterprises right now. Devin Akin, cofounder and CTO of Certified Wireless Network Professional, an industry certification program, says most organizations using lower-speed Wi-Fi aren’t using all of their bandwidth.

Dan Tice, the CIO at Avocent, a company that makes console and remote-switching systems, has also taken a wait-and-see attitude toward upgrading. “I’d need a strong motive,” he says, “for example, [a new installation] where I did not have wired infrastructure or where I could avoid wired infrastructure.”

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