A wireless office mixes rewards with challenges

A wireless office mixes rewards with challenges

By Mark A. Kellner

Special to GCN

Being an early adopter of information technology often has its advantages. It almost always has its challenges.

It certainly did for my home office and the combination of wireless and broadband technology. Over the past five months or so, the experiment has yielded great results and a few trials.

The advantages are clear, especially for telecommuters who work primarily at home, people in offices where too much sunlight or heat is a problem, and those of us who go to meetings almost constantly.

Any of these factors can unseat you from your desk. Meetings, for instance, are an unavoidable fact of work life today, as any reader of 'Dilbert' can attest. Having a wireless link that goes back to one's e-mail, as well as to files on the server'with a PC's volume muted, of course'enables a user to retrieve information on the fly.

Wireless access also gives a user mobility in many situations, such as when you can't stand the heat. My home is laid out on a north-south grid; my office is on the western side. In the afternoon, sunlight can make the room intolerable. It's a relief to be able to leave the room and still be connected to the Internet.

You can do this with a wired network, of course, but the hassles of stringing Category 5 wiring are substantial, especially in old buildings.

Installation challenge

For my home wireless LAN, I tried Lucent Technologies' Orinoco Residential Gateway 1000. Priced at just under $450 for the unit and one wireless antenna card, the device would extend my broadband Internet connection to the entire house.

Installation was a bit of a challenge, partly because my broadband provider, now known as AT&T Broadband, has an older network in my locale. This meant I had to figure out how to connect my account to the Media Access Control layer address of the network interface card inside the Orinoco RG-1000 and then set up all my computers to get IP addresses from the gateway.

It took some work and consultation with a Lucent engineer. Most people who buy the equipment from broadband providers, whether digital subscriber lines or cable suppliers, will have the gateways preconfigured for their needs, a company spokesman said.

Wi-Fi is the compliance term used by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance for the IEEE 802.11b standard. Wi-Fi's 11-Mbps capacity delivers the goods for most users. You don't always get 11-Mbps throughput, of course, but the speeds are generally more than enough to handle fast loading of Web sites, file transfers and streaming media.

Wi-Fi operates on a 2.4-GHz frequency'if you have a cordless phone running at the same frequency, you must set the gateway, which broadcasts the data signal, to run on a different channel. Conversely, if you add a 2.4-GHz phone system to your office after installing Wi-Fi, adjust the phone accordingly.

Another problem with older cable modem systems that don't support the Data Over Cable System Interface Specification is that there may be a reflection of IP addresses back into the local broadband loop. This, in turn, can capture the MAC address of a cable modem and bridge its computers'that is, yours'onto another wireless gateway device.

The solution to this problem is proper configuration at all points and better filtering on broadband networks. Government offices that rely on a public cable network for broadband access should pay careful attention to this possible security breach.

There are practical limits to the number of computers that a single gateway device can support. I've had as many as three wireless devices hanging off a network and running at once; up to five per gateway device should be fine. Some industrial-strength products claim to offer connectivity for more computers.

But the bottom line is clear: Being connected and able to roam around my house is a terrific convenience. And it won't stop there. Many conferences, including this year's editions of Mobile Insights and Demo Mobile, are featuring 802.11b-compliant Wi-Fi networks, which will keep me in touch with e-mail and the Net effortlessly.

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