Just yesterday, or so it seems, wireless technology meant nothing more than cell phones. In fact, it may be that the whole love affair with all things wireless truly began with pagers. Remember when everybody and their brother had one? Don’t you wonder where they all went? Things never stay the same, do they?

It’s as if everywhere you look, every enterprise is turning to wireless, or at least talking about it. Wireless LANs are becoming more and more popular, and it has become absolutely essential for contractors to understand what they are all about. Even if you don’t grasp every single technical specification, you can easily prepare yourself to talk about this networking option.

Wireless LANs are not new. In fact, they have been around for years. It has only been recently that they have surged in popularity and desirability, mainly due to new standards and industry enhancements. Long gone are the days when wireless was virtually an undesirable alternative because of high cost and low bandwidth.

The basics

Starting with the basics will help contractors begin to understand the lingo being thrown around and grasp a better understanding of what this phenomenon is all about. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has a collection of specifications known as 802.11 that dictate wireless local area networks, more commonly known as WLANs. Another wireless proponent is the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA). Sounds like a lot of acronyms, but it does make sense.

The IEEE’s umbrella specification breaks out into even more specific standards created to ensure industry standards. This brings the total of specifications to four (at least for the time being): 802.11, 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g.

The IEEE 802.11a standard has parameters that allow for wireless operations up to 54 megabits. As with any other networking solution, such maximum operating capabilities are achieved under ideal conditions, and we all know (too well) that such a thing rarely exists. This is the newest option and has yet to be widely accepted. But, as with almost everything related to technology, it may be just a matter of time.

The IEEE 802.11b standard allows for Ethernet-quality transmission rates. The 802.11b WLAN is the older, more widely accepted version, due in part to the fact that it has been around longer and people are more comfortable with it. Even though transmission rates hover around the 11 megabit range, it is definitely an option many are exploring.

The most recent addition to this family is the 802.11g standard, which takes wireless technology to a new level. It essentially pushes the envelope and places this type of wireless system into the gigabit operating range, hence the “g” designation.

Another unique feature is that this type of system provides backward compatibility with 802.11b equipment, a new and useful twist to the wireless world.

Why wireless?

Since wireless solutions have been around for a while, what is propelling the newly found desirability? Why are consumers requesting such solutions more than ever before?

Perhaps the events of Sept. 11 had a little something to so with bringing the benefits of wireless to the forefront once again. One could not help but be utterly impressed and amazed at the benefits of being able to operate off a network, or at the least have access to one, when physical space and location become a glaring issue.

WLANs are an ideal choice for enterprises that move employees around. They are also beneficial for companies located in or moving to older buildings. As all contractors know far too well, older buildings are almost always absolutely impossible to cable. Everyone has made an attempt, at some point in his or her career, at running cable through an older building only to come across an old cinderblock wall. Organization’s that are located in a temporary facility are also a prime candidate for a WLAN.

Scalability is another benefit of wireless LANs. Since there is no need to deal with cabling issues, new users can more easily be added to the network. This alone can provide a substantial savings over traditionally cabled systems, especially for large enterprise networks where adding and moving users can quickly become an expensive task.

The maintenance piece of the network puzzle is also less complicated than with traditionally cabled systems. Since no wires are associated with the network, troubleshooting a potentially bad connection becomes an easier, less-daunting project.

Why not?

With wireless, like anything related to technology—or any other industry for the sake of argument—there is never a completely perfect solution.

Some of the most prominent drawbacks to WLANs are perhaps security, scalability and bandwidth.

Security tops everyone’s list these days and simply ignoring the inherent security flaws potentially imbedded within WLANs is not a wise move. Contractors must be aware of these possible pitfalls so they can accurately and honestly discuss WLANs with their clients.

The main reason behind the security issue stems from the fact that wireless LANs can be more readily tapped into. But keep in mind that one can easily tap into any phone line with some relatively low-tech equipment and knowledge.

Scalability can be a drawback. Wait. Didn’t we just mention that this was a benefit? Talk about a contradiction. The reason scalability can turn from pro to con in a flash is that scalability can be tapped out quite rapidly. If a wireless LAN is being utilized by a rapidly growing organization, there may come a point where no more users can be added.

The bandwidth issue is slowly but surely remedying itself. The newer wireless options obviously have more available bandwidth, but it is really hard to compete against the lowest bandwidth available on a wired system that is 100 megabit.

Can’t decide...go for compromise!

Since there are pros and cons associated with all networking solutions, it is quite possible to run into customers, or more importantly, potential customers, who cannot make up their minds. This is to be expected if you take all of the available information into consideration.

This is when it may be in the best interest of everyone involved, especially the contractor, to suggest a hybrid approach. The hybrid approach has a two-fold benefit. Not only does it allow for aspects of both cabled and wireless systems to be utilized, but it will also create a redundant system that can be touted as a heightened security measure.

Sounds a little confusing at first, but it is really quite a logical solution. The hybrid option is one that most consumers opt for since the deciding factors between cabled and wireless LANs are now somewhat blurred. Since positive advances have been made in regard to the bandwidth and pricing issues of WLANs, consumers often find themselves having to make a hard decision between the two options.

For enterprises that have a wide variety of users on their network, the hybrid solution can be quite successful. For instance, those that require high security (sensitive information) and high bandwidth (loads of information transmittal) can operate on the wired portion of the network while those that tax the system less (remote workers and administrative support) can easily and successfully operate from the wireless portion.

All and all

It seems as if wireless is not only here to stay, but that everybody wants at least a piece of it. Using common sense and years of structured cabling experience can be a huge benefit to your customers.

By understanding that wireless is, in all honesty, the same thing as a regular network sans wires you can easily develop and increase your overall knowledge of WLANs. But don’t get too comfortable too quick. Who knows what looms out on the horizon. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.