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Written by Elizabeth Millard   
Monday, 28 February 2005 19:00
Although having a wireless setup has its advantages, it doesn't always make sense for SMBs.

The vision of a wireless office is almost universally appealing--who wouldn't want to head into the conference room with their laptop, a wealth of data available with just a few clicks? Also compelling is the fact that wireless adoption has grown to the point where a variety of service plans, products, and training courses are available.

This combination has resulted in a sales surge. According to research firm Allied Business Intelligence, annual revenue from wireless LAN equipment is predicted to reach $4.5 billion in 2006, a leap from 2000, when sales were only $969 million.

SMBs have a significant part in the popularity of wireless, and many that haven't made the leap are already carving out part of their budgets to implement it soon.

However, although having a wireless setup has its advantages, it doesn't always make sense for SMBs. Before cutting the cord, there are a number of factors that business owners should consider, including price, expertise, and in-house savvy. While crafting your wireless vs. wired plan, take a step back first and make sure that going wireless will be a benefit, not a potential obstacle, for your company.

long-term goals It's an obvious question, but one that some companies neglect to ask: why do you want to go wireless? If it's just to have that cool moment of connectivity in the boardroom, that's probably not a good enough reason. But if a company wants to boost mobility, and the physical office is large enough to warrant wireless use, then installing a wireless LAN probably fits in well with long-term planning.

For some companies, the decision is easy if they're moving to a brand new facility. Many architects and builders have become more aware of technology planning in design and construction. However, if there's no move anticipated, the existing building is already wired for Ethernet, and PCs are already connected and working well, a wireless network might be more of a nice-to-have than a true necessity.

"Planning is vital for understanding a company's needs," says Ann Westerheim, president of technology services company Ekaru. "During the planning process, it's always good to take a larger view. Instead of worrying about the details of implementation, ask yourself if it's really what you need in the first place."

Location

Wireless works in many areas, but in some places, it simply doesn't. Some universities and corporations that have older buildings have found that those well-built structures may be nice during storms, but aren't so great when a wireless signal is trying to struggle through concrete.

Site surveys, usually done by a wireless consultant or a vendor, can give an SMB a good idea of whether a wireless setup is feasible, and where access points can be placed to maximize signal strength.

"Doing a comprehensive site survey makes a lot of sense for small and medium-sized businesses," says Josh Radlein, wireless systems engineer for CDW. "Sometimes, it can even reveal that a wireless LAN won't work well in the existing building. And knowing that early saves a lot of money and frustration."

He advises that an SMB take the opportunity during the survey to get other vital information from whomever's sizing up the space. This can include recommendations on equipment, thoughts on wireless standards, and especially, insights about better security.

Cost

The good news is that wireless products have come down in price--way, way down from what they were when companies first began buying access points and wireless LAN items. But the bad news for an SMB might be that it simply doesn't fit in the budget, especially if it's not a necessity.

The cost will vary depending on the amount of equipment needed, and whether the job is done in-house or with outside help. Also, some SMBs like to involve a cable company, which can charge a set-up fee that can range from $200 to $500, depending on a location's size and the complexity of the task. A monthly maintenance fee is also thrown in there, although that's usually minimal, landing at about $10 per month.

Whatever the setup involves, Radlein says, "Like every other kind of implementation, it'll cost more than you think it will. So estimate wisely, and then tack on more as a buffer." When doing any kind of technology work, many companies add anywhere from 20 to 30 percent above the estimated cost as a cushion against sticker shock. Like remodeling a house, technology doesn't come cheap, and it doesn't stick to estimates.

Expertise

Even with a hosted provider, wireless can bring up a range of issues and challenges that are best addressed by at least one in-house support tech, or a frequent consultant. Security concerns in particular necessitate having someone who can keep up with the latest ways to combat worms and viruses. Wireless setups could require different authentication strategies as well, and if a company doesn't have a savvy administrator on hand, it could find itself in the middle of a wireless headache.

Also vital is having the resources to train employees. Simply installing a wireless LAN and then handing everyone laptops isn't enough, says Ed Partenope, president of platform technologies at technology consultancy Innovativ Systems Design.

"There are a wide variety of issues at play when you're giving employees wireless access," he says, adding that a common mistake is assuming employees will simply know about security issues and how to secure their data.

"Training is a necessary part of putting in wireless system, so a company should decide before they put in the network how they're going to handle it."

Whether a company chooses to go wireless or not, making sure that every issue has been addressed could make implementations smoother and prevent headaches in the future. As Westerheim notes, "Wireless is great for SMBs, as long as they know what they're getting into and what it'll involve."

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