Wireless Networking — Opinion

The last 2005 edition of Communications and Networking contained reflections from 1997 staffers about the state of the industry. One of these marvelled at how she orders coffee while surfing the Web. Her key observation: “…technology that makes an impact with consumers ultimately finds its way into the corporation.”

I’m glad that’s the case. Years ago, I helped start a training organization for employees of a computer software firm. This corporate university didn’t have its own classroom, so before welcoming a new class, I’d set up the boardroom (or a hotel conference room) with all the requisite hardware: power cables, network cables, router, and so forth.

Setup involved more cables than I care to remember. Of course, if Sales needed the boardroom to host prospective clients, we’d have to find another place to hold class. That done, we’d pack up the piles of cables that turned the boardroom table a tangled black and blue, ask learners to tote their notebook PCs, and move to whatever spot we scrounged (there were no coffee shops nearby). Then we’d set everything up again.

Fast forward to today, and the options look much better. One day, PC manufacturers may offer both longer-lasting batteries and machinery that doesn’t suck them dry as fast, so people can work all day on one charge.

However, the day to do away with both wired routers and the mass of network tentacles that snake through so many offices is already here. Wireless network cards, already standard features in most notebooks bought by business, would have been a boon to me in my full-time training days. Bribes, both anonymous and clearly from me, would have adorned the desks of IT staff until and after I could get rid of my cable collection.

Are bribes still necessary? If so, maybe security fears are still a factor. Horror stories about wireless network security breaches make their way to IT administrators through publications, chatter, and networks, wired or not. That’s enough to keep some businesses off the wireless wave.

Like most fears, though, this one isn’t entirely rational. Rampant demand for wireless applications drives developments like Wi-Max and high speed downlink packet access (HSDPA), both of which have already been implemented somewhere in the world. Credible vendors like Nortel and Cisco continue to expand their wireless offerings. In North America, Wi-Fi and VoIP have already made significant inroads both in homes and offices. As use of these technologies spreads, security tools evolve and diminish the need for the aforementioned fear. The same happens with any emerging technology, and wireless will also become more secure.

There are other reasons for cutting wires. Consider that many workers already have wireless home networking, and you must admit that employee attitude isn’t a problem. Will your company expand its premises? Think about the reduced need for wiring. Do your people frequently hop from meeting room to meeting room to off-site meetings, accessing network apps all the while? They would gladly make their trips with one less thing to hook up.

There are also risks to avoiding wireless. Tomorrow’s tech workers will have grown up sans fil, and we’re not just talking about Wi-Fi. In a few years, Wi-Max might bring the “free Internet” ambitions of certain municipalities within reach, and HSDPA may make mobile handsets (can we really call them phones any more?) ever more capable mobile work, communications, and entertainment nodes.

And your firm? Will you offer the ease of networking that your employees, current and future, can find just about anywhere else they go? If you don’t, will that affect the perceptions of preferred candidates enough to make them sign on elsewhere?

Risk has always been part of networking. Over time, IT departments have learned how to manage such risk, and they’ll do the same with emerging wireless technologies. They need to, After all, who wants to risk being seen as less technically sophisticated than the corner coffee shop?

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