Small Business Guide

Broadband & Mobility

Wi-Fi unplugged A buyer's guide for small businesses

Which flavor of Wi-Fi is right for your business?

That used to be an easy question to answer. A few years ago, there were only a few letters in the wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) or wireless LAN alphabet. The earliest and still most commonly-used standard is 802.11b. There is also 802.11a, and the newfangled 802.11g. Now, it seems that there are so many types of Wi-Fi that they may someday run out of letters.

While the question of what to choose may be difficult to answer, it is important for you to address it. A 2005 survey by the research firm, In-Stat, found that the vast majority of companies (91%) now use wireless data somewhere in their company, either on a limited or a widespread basis.

So what is wireless networking — and why is it important to your small business? Basically, IEEE 802.11, or Wi-Fi, uses radio waves to carry high-speed data to and from an access point that connects to cables. For more information on the latest developments in 802.11 standards, check out the Wi-Fi Alliance site.

Wireless networking can be critical to your business because it can measurably boost productivity — whether you're tracking inventory or meeting with customers. A wireless office is more flexible, scalable, and yes, often better than a wired office.

But what kind of wireless should you use? 802.11 or something else? As you look at the myriad of wireless protocols, you might run across the new WiMAX, (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) or IEEE 802.16 standard. It promises faster connection rates of up to 70 megabits (Mbps) per second, and a vastly larger coverage area of about 30 miles. Although this sounds like a tremendous advantage over current Wi-Fi systems, which are slower and have a shorter range, it's important to weigh the expense of WiMAX (plus the fact that it's still an emerging standard) in a purchasing decision. In fact, WiMAX is largely geared to commercial carriers for long-distance, point-to-point transmissions — not for small businesses.

At the moment, when it comes to wireless, the safest for your company continues to be Wi-Fi. What kind of 802.11 is right for my business? As I already mentioned, there are several varieties of Wi-Fi. At least one of them will work well for your company. But which one? Here's a rundown of choices.

1. 802.11 legacy. These are the wireless systems without a letter after them — and they operate between 1 and 2 Mbps at 2.4 gigahertz (GHz). If someone offers to sell you one, buy it — but not for your business. Buy it to sell to a museum someday. They are, for the most part, obsolete.

Bottom line: Not for you.

2. 802.11a is a more common standard for wireless networking.It operates on a 5 GHz range (so there's less interference) with rates of up to 54 Mbps. "Given that there is much less interference on 5 GHz, 802.11 typically performs better at a distance," says John Gmuender, the vice president of engineering for SonicWALL, an Internet security firm in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Bottom line: If you need something fast, consider using 802.11a. "If you want to anticipate high-bandwidth applications — applications needing higher throughput data rates, such as voice over IP," then Wireless-a is a good bet, says Roger Skidmore, the chief product officer for Wireless Valley Communications, an Austin, Texas-based wireless software developer.

3. 802.11b operates on a 2.4 GHz range with rates up to 11Mbps. Why is Wireless-b slower than a? Because it's older. But 802.11b still remains one of the most popular protocols, because it was first and still does some things better than a, according to some users — like have a maximum range of several miles. (Note: Wireless a- and- b don't play nice together, so don't try to mix your hardware.)

Bottom line: If you need something relatively fast and you're cost-conscious, this brand of Wi-Fi may work for you.

4. 802.11g is the latest in Wi-Fi, and at the moment it's difficult to buy any wireless equipment that isn't Wireless-g compatible. Like 802.11b, it operates on the 2.4 GHz band, but it's faster, running at a maximum rate of 54 Mbps. What's more, it's compatible with 802.11a equipment, meaning you don't have to upgrade the entire office.

Bottom line: It's faster and at the moment, it's the de-facto standard. Most small businesses should consider investing in a Wireless-g network. "If you need to set up a wireless network immediately, 802.11g is definitely the most established Wi-Fi standard on the market right now," says David Blumenfeld, vice president of marketing at Jiwire, a Web site.

5. 802.11n is the next thing. It uses a radio technology called MIMO (multiple input/multiple output) that promises speeds of up to 100 Mbps, plus an extended range. But like WiMAX, 802.11n standards won't be settled until 2006, so if you see something that offers "n" compatibility, it might still be too early to buy.

Bottom line: The 802.11n is not quite ready for prime-time. But it may soon be. What about the other letters? Don't worry about them. These additional standards are, for lack of a better term, not major developments. For example, 802.11d is a specification that allows for configuration to comply with the rules of the country in which the network is to be used; 802.11e adds multimedia support to Wireless-b, g and networks; and 802.11i adds advanced encryption standards and improves key management.

"Among the alphabet soup of wireless protocols, 802.11g offers consumers a safe, widely-used standard that is backward compatible and ensures support for the broadest range of devices on the market," says Scot Zarkiewicz, president and chief executive of SingleClick Systems, a wireless and home networking software provider. Focus on the big letters — a, b, g and possibly, n — and you can't go wrong.

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