Small Business Guide

Broadband & Mobility

6 tips for making a wired office wireless-friendly

At first, the 802.11b hotspot I sprung for in 2003 seemed so frivolous that I didn't bother mentioning it to clients who visited my office. And since my PC remained wired to a high-speed land connection, I nearly forgot I had installed it.

Then one day I caught an editor who was visiting me as he tried to dial an Internet connection through the phone. I was horrified anyone would revert to dial-up in the 21st century, let alone my supervisor. "Why don't you use the Wi-Fi," I asked him.
It was nothing a wireless card and a password couldn't fix — but it did get me to thinking about the importance of having wireless Internet access in your office, and how that can help boost business. A number of recent surveys link business productivity with wireless connections. But a 2004 Harris Interactive poll, in particular, caught my attention. It suggested that a quarter of all employees often work outside their regular office. It also said 14% of all office workers wanted more wireless networking tools. Connect the dots on these two facts, and you could conclude that there's growing demand for wireless connections in small offices like yours. And not just by your own employees, but by visitors. According to industry studies, today's professionals are at their office desks only 30% of the time, and for frequent business travelers, the figure is even lower.

So how do you turn your wired office into a wireless workspace that's not only employee-friendly but also visitor-friendly? Here are six guidelines to follow.

1. Do your homework before you buy. The only thing worse than no wireless network is the wrong wireless network. "The most common mistake, when going wireless is not doing your homework or research before the equipment is bought and installed," says Larry Levy, a wireless troubleshooting expert based in Jacksonville, Fla. He's seen small-office managers pick wireless hardware that couldn't reach every part of the building, leaving big coverage gaps. Especially when it's a custom job using special hardware for encryption, it's important to pay attention to every detail.

2. Listen to your visitors. Are they asking for wireless access — or do they need speed? If your clients drop by your office with the intention of moving large files to and from their laptop computers, for example, then they may care more about bandwidth than convenience. "The assumption is that speed is the main determinant of access point quality," says Derek Kerton, a wireless expert and principal with The Kerton Group in San Jose, Calif. But that's not necessarily valid. An access point needs to be secure, interoperable with all client gear, and have long range, an easy user interface, and good instructions and support. "And if speed really is the goal, then string wire," he adds. "There is one-gigabit copper LAN equipment for sale at reasonable prices. So if speed is the metric, go for copper."

3. Don't confuse Bluetooth for Wi-Fi. Your visitors won't. In an effort to cut costs, some small businesses try to improvise by using Bluetooth as a cheap wireless network. "Bluetooth is designed as a cable-replacement technology, not as a way of linking multiple devices in a peer-to-peer network," says Robyn West, the vice president for small and medium business at Hewlett-Packard. Bottom line: In order to meet visitors' needs, you need both a reliable wireless network and at least a printer with Bluetooth capabilities.

4. Location, location, location. Where you put your access points is especially important when you want to be accommodating to your guests. Even if you've bought the right hardware, you have to put it in a place where it works best. And where's that? "Place your base station, gateway, or router near the center of your intended wireless network area," says Jim Caruso, chief executive officer of Telecom Alley, a technology consulting firm in Atlanta. "This will minimize the possibility of eavesdropping by neighboring wireless networks. Avoid placing wireless components close to electro-magnetic devices, especially those with frequencies in the 2.4-gigahertz range."

5. Remember: safety first. Your PC — and your visitor's PC — is twice as vulnerable to attacks on a wireless connection. It's an especially big problem for do-it-yourselfers, warns Gordon Bridge, president of CM IT Solutions in Austin, Texas. "None of the hardware providers offer on-site support," he says. "They try to make it easy to implement their products, but unfortunately, their products offer little security." Major breaches to the system wouldn't just affect your visitors — they'd affect you, too, since the outsiders would have access to your network. Bridge advises hiring a pro to fine-tune your wireless system.

6. Don't neglect the ongoing care and maintenance of your network. That's a surprisingly easy thing to forget when everyone else in your office generally works on a wired conventional network. But ignore the wireless access points at your own peril, says Todd Myers, the chief executive of Airpath Wireless, a hotspot provider based in Waltham, Mass. He recommends appointing one employee with oversight responsibility for the wireless network. But, he adds, give that person clear marching orders. "Open the network up to the visiting guests — but have it managed and also have it secure for employee network access," he says. "This can be accomplished by segmenting the private network and the public guest network."

For more tips on wireless networking for small offices.
If most of the employees in your small office remain connected to a conventional network, you might have second thoughts before investing in wireless technology. After all, why shell out perfectly good money for something only your guests are going to use? But that approach is shortsighted, according to Josh Radlein, a technology specialist with CDW Corp. in Vernon Hills, Ill. "We hear frequently that return-on-investment comes from productivity gains and the flexibility to shift people and resources around quickly to optimize available space," he says.

That long-term approach is what Sparkspace, a small business that offers conferencing facilities in Columbus, Ohio, took when it redesigned its office spaces. "I've noticed a high percentage of our guests now have wireless cards in their laptops. It seems like this trend took off almost overnight," says Mark Henson, who manages the facility. The result? Not only do clients benefit from Wi-Fi. So have Sparkspace's employees. They have more freedom of movement within the office, which has revved up productivity. "And it adds a coolness factor, which fuels the perception of Sparkspace as a hip, cutting-edge kind of place for our guests," he adds. "That's good for PR."

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