Wireless Printing 101
Not long ago, wireless printing was an impractical dream for most business owners. Costs were high. The hassle factor was even higher. But with the push for all things mobile, and therefore wireless, the days of category 5 cable (Cat5) snaking all over the office through walls and ceiling panels may be finally on the endangered list.
“All the technology pieces are in place now and people are starting to take advantage of it. Connecting is a lot better than a few years ago," says Larry Jamison, director of the Hard Copy Industry Advisory Service at Lyra Research, an IT research firm in Newtonville, Mass. “Wireless printing is ideal for the fast growing startup that needs to be nimble to move or reconfigure its existing physical office space."
Jamison points to three areas where improvements have been dramatic in recent years: security, speed, and ease of use.
Some forget a wireless printer on the network is a hole in the network unless properly secured. According to AMI Partners, a marketing intelligence firm based in New York City, three out of four companies with more than 50 employees now has a secure virtual private network (VPN). Securing a wireless printer can be as simple as adding it to the VPN.
The other big reason wireless printing is increasingly safer are the advances in the 802.11i standards for wireless networking. 802.11i (sometimes referred to as WPA2 or RSN), unlike its predecessor Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), is much more secure using the Advanced Encryption Standard adopted by the U.S. government.
802.11i wireless devices, which most wireless printing technologies comply with nowadays, are also increasingly faster. There are three versions of the standard: 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11n. The higher the letter of the alphabet, the more speed. 802.11g is probably the best bet for most businesses right now. 802.11n is comparable to a cable network in speed, but it hasn’t been fully approved as a standard yet. Therefore “g” is the more stable option, albeit a little slower. Important to remember, however: as the number of users increase, the network slows down. Despite improvements, wired printing is still faster overall.
Ease of use
This is probably the biggest factor pushing wireless printing to the forefront. With the help of a VPN already in place and the standardization from 802.11i compliance, configuring routers and wireless kits have become easier. Although experts still advise investing in an IT consultant for set-up. “It’s definitely worth the money,” says Michelle Warren, a senior analyst from InfoTech.
In fact, even the so-called experts still struggle. Todd Carter, author of the Wireless All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies, recently tried to upgrade his office printing to wireless. “I just couldn’t get it to work,” admits Carter.
Despite his own struggles, Carter offers the following sound considerations for business owners thinking about taking the plunge.
- Get a printer server. Any printer can be used on a wireless network. It just needs to be hooked up to a printer server. A printer server is a small appliance with an antenna that acts as the wireless go-between among all the printers and users. Printer servers sell for as little as $50. An even cheaper option is to convert an older desktop into a server, by simply adding a wireless card.
- Multiple access points. Remember the signal has to make it to the server’s antenna. This may require any number of antennas set up around the office relaying the signal from one location to the next. Think through the physical office space and location of both all the users and printers during the planning stage.
- Check your walls. The good news is, yes, the signal does go through walls. The bad news: it doesn’t go through every kind of wall. “Metal within walls will diminish the signal,” says Carter. “Concrete walls are problematic, too.”
- Set it up first. Then do security. Obviously, you want as little of a lag between the two as possible. However, set up is a lot easier without configuring security at the same time, Carter says. Make it work, then quickly work to make it safe.
Remember for most operations, printing is a core technology. Warren, from InfoTech, advises businesses to keep the big multifunction printer wired. “Wireless printing is slower," she says. "Save the big 100-plus page jobs for the wired printer.”
In other words, don’t count on those Cat5 cables going extinct just yet. There may always be one or two gathering dust along the baseboards after all.