Wireless networking is a growing segment of the voice/data/video (VDV) market offering a great deal of opportunity for the electrical contracting firm. The establishment of wireless network standards, advances in wireless technology and the need for mobile broadband connections is driving this market. Currently, the wireless world is being driven by people who want to connect to the Internet anywhere and anytime using portable devices such as laptop computers, tablet computers, handheld personal computers (HPC) or personal digital assistants (PDAs). However, new applications for wireless networking that go beyond e-mail and Web access are being explored and implemented.

Wireless local area networks (WLAN) allow people to sever the Ethernet cable and connect to their local network or the Internet anytime they are in range of a wireless access point (AP). Wireless APs are often referred to as “hot spots” and their number is growing daily. “Hot spots” are appearing anywhere that people spend time and might want to connect to the Internet to check e-mail or surf the Web. Typical locations include restaurants, hotels and airports.

Wi-Fi standards

The standards for wireless networking are published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as the 802.11 family of standards. The IEEE wireless networking standards are as follows:

Wireless networks employing IEEE 802.11b technology operate in the 2.4 GHz band and have a data transfer rate of about 11Mbps. IEEE 802.11b was the first wireless networking standard and it was dubbed “wireless fidelity” or Wi-Fi. IEEE 802.11b networks have a range of about 300 feet.

The IEEE 802.11a standard followed IEEE 802.11b. IEEE 802.11a networks have a data rate of 54 Mbps, which is approximately five times as fast as IEEE 802.11b networks and operate in the 5.0 MHz band. IEEE 802.11b and 802.11a network devices are not compatible. Besides the data rate, IEEE 802.11a networks have other advantages including operating in the 5.0 GHz band, which avoids interference from wireless telephones and other devices that work in the 2.4 GHz band.

IEEE 802.11g was approved in 2003 and is the newest addition to the IEEE 802.11 family of wireless networking standards. As shown in the table, IEEE 802.11g networks operate in the 2.4 GHz band like IEEE 802.11b networks. Devices that operate on an IEEE 802.11g network are backward compatible and can be used on IEEE 802.11b networks but not the other way around. One advantage of IEEE 802.11g networks is that they operate at a 54 Mbps like the IEEE 802.11a.

First it was telephone modems, then it was network interface cards (nic), and now it is Wi-Fi cards. In each case, early adopters of the technology had to purchase a separate card and install it in their computer. However, today a telephone modem and nic are standard equipment on personal computers. The same thing is happening with Wi-Fi. Laptops, tablets, HPCs and PDAs are produced with standard, built-in wireless networking capability. As more devices come with built-in Wi-Fi capability, the demand for “hot-spots” and Wi-Fi applications will increase dramatically.

A security roadblock

The same advantages that are driving the proliferation of wireless networks in public places for individuals are there for businesses as well. However, the major roadblock to the adoption of wireless networking by businesses has been security. Users on a wired LAN must be physically plugged into the network, whereas with a wireless network, anyone within range of the access point can potentially get access to the company’s network and information. The security of wireless networks has been a major concern for network administrators and a major roadblock to their widespread adoption and use by business.

The security concern is being eliminated with the introduction of new security standards. These standards should result in widespread adoption of wireless networks by business and a host of new business applications. “Wired Equivalent Protocol” or “WEP” was the original Wi-Fi security standard and it is very vulnerable to being hacked. WEP is being replaced by “Wi-Fi Protected Access” or “WPA,” which offers improved security designed to foil hackers. WPA is designed to operate on existing hardware with a software upgrade and will be standard on new Wi-Fi devices. WPA is also forward compatible with the new IEEE 802.11i wireless network security standard that is currently in draft form and expected to further improve wireless network security. EC

GLAVINICH is an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas and is a frequent instructor for NECA’s Management Education Institute. He can be reached at 785.864.3435 or tglavinich@ku.edu.