Power User: Prime-time wireless for small offices? Not quite

John McCormick

The latest technology always sounds enticing. Take wireless networking, for example. The ads make it sound as if you merely plug in a wireless PC Card and you're on the air, sharing files, printers, Internet links and even some applications.

I decided to start off 2004 by installing one of these marvels.

I had a spare Microsoft Windows 98 system from Dell, a Compaq with Windows 2000 and a hot multimedia Dell running Windows XP Pro. I also had a Gateway/Motion Computing Tablet PC with IEEE 802.11b WiFi built in.

All I needed to network them was a wireless router. I plan to have two-way satellite broadband installed this summer, so I went with Cisco Systems Inc.'s Linksys Wireless-G Broadband Router, which also supports my Tablet PC.

I placed the order at www.CDW.com and in a few minutes got a Federal Express shipping confirmation. Incidentally, you can now track an express package by entering the routing number in Google.com.

FedEx reported the router was set for delivery on Tuesday. Nothing came. On Friday the FedEx site still reported the order on the truck for delivery. There was a blizzard and I was busy with other things, so I e-mailed CDW the following Monday. They checked with FedEx and told me the shipment was being returned because it had been damaged in transit.

FedEx didn't bother notifying me, but CDW shipped a replacement the same day I e-mailed. It arrived quickly and undamaged.

Although Cisco's tech support assured me that the 802.11g router could network my systems without a broadband cable connection, the Linksys setup software allowed only that configuration, and tech support couldn't help me further.

I wanted to use the XP Pro system as the Internet link for the wireless network, but I'm still not certain it's possible. The XP Pro network wizard failed every time I tried to run it.

Although I've spent about 10 hours installing and tweaking, there is still no useful network. I can't share files or an Internet connection, or do much of anything except see the router lights blink. Oddly enough, the Tablet PC reports that it has logged on. I got all that in the first 10 minutes and gained nothing by spending the other nine hours installing, reinstalling, calling support and reading the documentation.

I stopped trying to fix things after the first day because another problem cropped up.

The wireless router, humming along at 2.4 GHz, made nice, bright horizontal bands on all my security monitors. Because I have four remotely controlled pan-and-tilt color cameras and four more fixed cameras, this was unacceptable.

Many wireless phones, security devices and remote cameras run in the same radio band as wireless routers, but I'd never experienced interference before. Now it arrived with a vengeance.

I doubt there's anything wrong with the Linksys router. If I had a broadband connection for it, all would probably work as advertised in the configuration software. I suspect the root problem is the trouble I'm having with the XP Pro network configuration wizard.

But if I get it running correctly, do I activate the $200 network router and discard eight security cameras? I think not. It's cheaper to run cables.

On the bright side, the same CDW shipment included an inexpensive, external Iomega Corp. Universal Serial Bus CD-rewritable drive for the Tablet PC. The CD-RW installed in about 30 seconds and works like a dream.

I haven't complained to Cisco or Microsoft because I never expected the installation to go easily. What I was really testing was whether wireless networking is ready for small offices that lack an IT expert.

Wireless is probably fine if you don't try to do anything out of the ordinary, even if the vendor says you should be able to do it. But wirelessly networking a small office by simply plugging in a router and a few cables isn't ordinary.

I guess the difference between a newbie and an old hand is that I'm not surprised when technology turns around and bites me.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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