FOR SECURITY, COMMUNICATIONS, CONTROLS and other information technology functions, wireless is one of the fastest-emerging growth markets.

In the business environment, wireless networking has to be safe and secure because sensitive data, personnel records and other information are at stake. Here, encryption has become more a necessity than a luxury. Firewalls and layered levels of security are often deployed. However, the transfer speed of data or information may not be as good as a wired network connection in some instances. Of late, some in the industry have also questioned the reliability of what has become one of the standards in LAN networking-802.11-commonly referred to, but not exactly the same as, wireless fidelity or Wi-Fi for short. As the market and technology matures, the issues that remain will be worked out with emerging standards and commonality.

Wi-Fi is one of the hottest networking endeavors in the business sector to date-entities, such as Cleveland and Philadelphia and other municipalities, have deployed it for their day-to-day operations. There is also talk of public wireless networks, still another extension of this growing genre. It's becoming clear that the wireless network will continue as a necessary and important ingredient in achieving a truly integrated building solution.

The advantages of a wireless network are many and straightforward, which is why it's so popular. Wireless is the perfect way to extend the existing network infrastructure into areas previously too costly or too remote to be included. It provides flexibility and ease of use, and the equipment is minimal and simple to set up. Wireless networks are robust and also benefit from what is referred to as “application transparency.” This means that applications that function in wired networks are made to function in wireless networks as well.

Just how does the wireless LAN apply to traditional low-voltage? Again, it goes back to integration-the need to control, through a computer, all the little bits and pieces of a building that go into its operation. That includes information technology, security and control, building management and much more. End-users may decide they need wireless on the network for control's sake, at a remote part of the facility, for general computing, for accessing the Internet, or even to extend secure computing hardware to laptops, PDAs, copiers, machinery and other pieces of property. Piggybacking wireless with other solutions, as seamlessly as possible, is the wave of the future and a large part of the growth in this sector.

There is so much you can do with a wireless network, and the end-user is beginning to take advantage of the technology. Remote access of wireless data networks will continue on the upswing, even more so in 2005, according to In-Stat/MDR (a division of Reed Business), Scottsdale, Ariz.

Voice over wireless LANs

Wireless makes it possible to “extend the network into places you would have never dreamed,” said Kneko Burney, chief market strategist for Customer & Service Provider Markets, In-Stat/MDR. There are many new and exciting things to talk about relating to wireless LANs, she said, but much of the innovation is directed at the ability to obtain remote access of the network. This provides additional flexibility and a wide range of applications, especially access via cellular and PDAs.

“Wireless LANs also increase productivity, because, for example, employees can access information online and pull up data instantly. It assists in inventory management and can be extended into production as well. Voice over wireless is coming on strong in the market as well,” Burney said.

Wireless network functions are increasingly part of cellular technology. Motorola, Schaumburg, Ill., recently began shipping a dual-mode cellular with wireless/Wi-Fi capability built in, and this seems to be a strong indication of what the next generation of these devices will be, Burney said.

“In the future, dual-mode devices with cellular and Wi-Fi will be built into many mobile phones. We'll see a lot of that in 2005 as well as more voice capabilities over wireless,” she predicted.

Duty driven

Wireless can be used on the production floor of the manufacturing or production facility, warehouse or retail stores; for example, wireless is being used in radio frequency identification tags for merchandise, pallets and inventory control.

New safeguards, such as firewalls, are in place to address computer security-referred to as intrusion detection (not to be mistaken for sensors that might protect a security environment). But Burney said for traditional business users, the wireless network is quite secure. For more secure applications, a virtual private network (VPN) is most often used to access corporate computers and networks.

Wireless is certainly nothing new to the security industry. Wireless sensors and systems came on strong in the 1980s and have continued to improve. What's new is the use of wireless networks implemented in conjunction with security and surveillance systems as network-savvy users find that they can do much of their control without the limits of hardwiring only.

Manufacturers continue to respond to the need for integration, even between hard-wired and wireless devices, with technologies that are multitasking, multidisciplined and solutions-oriented. How do you want your wireless system configured- to run alone or with another system (i.e., standalone or networked)? Anything is possible with the level of integration available.

In the security industry, many products are an extension of existing capabilities and new pieces to the wireless network “puzzle.” For example, Cypress Computer Systems, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-a designer and manufacturer of access control and security-related products-recently introduced a wireless short-range radio frequency device to extend the distance between any two access-control readers and a controller. With the capability to span up to 500 feet, the short-range DUPREX unit eliminates the need for additional controllers and can be used where hardwiring may be time-consuming and too costly. An Ethernet version of the product is available.

Many other companies are playing off the presence of the existing LAN or Ethernet and reaching into new capabilities with wireless. eXI Wireless, Richmond, British Columbia, has successfully taken radio frequency identification to some of the earliest-adopting markets, including healthcare, construction, oil and gas, and power generation, proving there is a need for wireless identification technologies, said Amar Virdee, account manager, Northwestern USA. Virdee said that the company is testing asset tags at 22 U.S. hospitals. The company estimates equipment losses cost hospitals about $4,000 per bed annually or potentially $3.9 billion per year. eXI makes one of the smallest radio frequency identification technologies on the market, with tags about the size of a nickel and a couple millimeters thick.

For the end-user, the local area network or wide area network is the place where they can accomplish a number of functions, including information technology, security and facility management. But the beauty lies in the emergence of wireless and being able to remotely “patch into” the facility from nearly any location. Wireless is important for all installers, including the electrical contractor or electrical engineer, who can piggyback this technology off traditional hard-wired installations with ease and great success. EC

O’MARA is the president of DLO Communications in Park Ridge, Ill., specializing in low-voltage. She can be reached at 847.384.1916 or domara@earthlink.net.