Wireless networking equipment and services have improved markedly in recent years, bringing the cost within the range of small to mid-sized companies. "Today you can buy a wireless network in a box and be up and running quickly," says John Drewry, 3Com's senior director of business development, wireless connectivity division. "A lot of [small businesses] aren't aware that this is really an option, but we will see the beginning of that small-business wave this year."
Wireless equipment manufacturers hope to ride that wave with innovations such as the emerging Bluetooth technology. Bluetooth is a wireless standard that lets printers, PCs, laptops, cell phones, and other equipment communicate with each other from about 30 feet away. Direct line-of-sight between machines is not required. Xircom, Epson, Toshiba, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard are some of the companies now making Bluetooth devices.
When discussing a wireless solution with salespeople, keep in mind that there are two kinds of networks: fixed wireless and mobile wireless. A fixed wireless network consists of a group of computers, printers, and other equipment connected via wireless technology in a local area network (LAN). With a fixed wireless LAN, you can carry your PDA (personal data assistant, such as a Palm Pilot) or laptop throughout the building and still have access to your desktop computer or the corporate mainframe. To accomplish that, you need a complete system, such as 3Com's AirConnect Wireless LAN, which includes a wireless hub and three modem cards. It sells for $1,345.
A mobile wireless network refers to cellular telephone technology that connects various computing devices to each other or to the Internet. With a PalmVIIx, for instance, a traveler could send and receive e-mail, schedule meetings, and read information from more than 400 Web sites while walking through an airport. The PalmVIIx sells for less than $450.
But why should a business with a perfectly good wired computer system consider going wireless? It may not be the answer for every business, but wireless technology offers a number of advantages, says Charles Flores, vice-president of engineering and co-founder of Adicom Wireless, a wireless provider based in Pleasanton, California.
"It's a technology that can effectively compete with copper [wires]," Mr. Flores says, "because wireless doesn't have the speed limitations of copper."
For a small, fast-growing company, mobility is important, but the greatest
advantage of wireless networking may be its flexibility. "Small businesses often move around a lot," explains Mr. Drewry. "A wireless network gives them flexibility. They can move across town and take the network with them." A wireless system also eliminates the need for punching holes in walls and stringing miles of cabling when a network is expanded, Mr. Drewry adds.
Even if the whole company doesn't go wireless, it might make sense for certain departments. For example:
-- A sales team can use a wireless network while in the field to connect to the home-office computer system to check on product availability, place orders, retrieve information, and communicate with support staff.
-- Technicians at a field service operation can benefit by using a wireless system to consult service manuals, eliminating the need to carry around large catalogs or technical documentation that may not have the latest updates.
-- Vending-machine operators can use wireless networks to track stock levels in machines scattered across a city. Rather than sending out employees to check on each machine, the home office monitors the information sent by the machines to a central database.
-- In a retail business, sales clerks equipped with handheld devices can place orders, check on inventory, and perform other tasks from anywhere in the store.
Before investing in wireless technology, a business needs to determine exactly what it wants to achieve, Mr. Flores cautions. "You have to define what your needs are," he says. "Ask yourself what quality of voice service you need and what data speed you need to accomplish your goals. Those are important questions." Armed with answers to such questions, a company should be able to find a wireless solution that's the best fit for its operation.
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