Wireless workplaces save time and money, and promote mobility -- but they can create new headaches as well

Mike Bouissey already works on the top floor of a seven-story building in Philadelphia's Center City. But on warm, sunny days, he slips his notebook computer under his arm and heads up one more flight.

Whenever weather permits, Bouissey, a project manager for Web-design company WebLinc, works on the building's flat, asphalt-topped roof. He's never out of touch. He forwards calls from his desk to his cell phone, and -- although there's not a cord or a cable in sight -- he remains logged on to the company's local area network (LAN), using radio waves rather than wires. He can send and receive E-mail, build Web pages, track his team's progress, and do anything else he'd do downstairs in the office, all while sitting on a blanket in the sun. His only limitation: he must stick close to one of three domed skylights so that his computer can stay in touch with the network's base station downstairs. Beyond that, he's set -- at least as long as his 2.5-pound Sony PictureBook's batteries last.

"If you can be outside, why not?" says Bouissey, who hasn't noticed any slowdown in performance -- either his own or that of his computer -- since he began working wirelessly. "You can get away and still be connected."

"We'll actually be able to have meetings on the roof and be tied into the network,' says WebLinc CEO Darren Hill. He's planning to build a rooftop deck, complete with a juice bar, power outlets, and patio furniture.

Bouissey's bosses not only indulge his wanderlust, they encourage it. This summer the company plans to build a 2,000-square-foot elevated rooftop deck, complete with a juice bar, power outlets, and patio furniture. That will let Bouissey and others work atop the 150-year-old former toy factory more comfortably (and have a better view of the Philly skyline over the brick safety walls). "We'll actually be able to have meetings with clients on the roof and be tied into the network," says CEO Darren C. Hill.

But working without wires isn't just a warm-weather perk for outdoor enthusiasts like Bouissey and Hill. About two-thirds of WebLinc's 45 staffers use wireless laptop computers full-time inside the company's 12,000-square-foot headquarters. So do most of the eight employees at financial-insurance company SuretyBond.com, a start-up that subleases a corner of WebLinc's office space and shares its LAN. The payoff, according to devotees at both companies: true in-house mobility. People can work almost anyplace they want -- not just where the wires are.

Whether they're at their desks or gathered around conference tables or lounging on rec-room couches, both companies' wireless users are always online -- either on WebLinc's in-house network or on the Web. There's no running back and forth to desktop computers, no logging off one machine and on to another, no hunting around for an available phone jack. From anywhere on (or in Bouissey's case, above) the seventh floor, users just open their computers and sign on once. They then can access files, print documents, write reports, create or run presentations, check E-mail, chat in real time, do research, and, in some cases, even update their customers' Web sites. They can also access the network with wireless handheld computers or Web-enabled phones.

Hill says that going mobile makes sense for fluid, fast-growing companies like his own, which went from 3 full-time employees in 1998 to 20 in early 2000 to nearly 50 today. As WebLinc -- whose customers include Crayola and Urban Outfitters -- expands, it's easy to get new employees up and running: they just sit somewhere, turn on their newly issued notebooks, and get to work. "We don't have to run any new wires; all you need is an outlet," Hill says. WebLinc, like many other companies, often shuffles people around as it expands. From a technology standpoint, moving is no big deal with a wireless network: workers can just pack up their little computers and go. Finally, if a machine crashes or needs service, the luckless owner just carries it over to the closest information-systems staffer and swaps it for a new one.

"I can't imagine going back to the old way," says SuretyBond.com executive vice-president and chief operating officer Chad Rosenberg, who's so sold on no-wire networks that he has set one up for his computers at home. "This is just too convenient."

Whether they're at their desks or at company conference tables or lounging on rec-room couches, both companies' wireless users are always online.

WebLinc and SuretyBond.com are among a growing number of small businesses that are embracing the wireless workplace with the fervor of converts to a new religion. While no one's keeping a company-by-company count, wireless LAN sales overall should more than triple in the next 18 months, growing from $624 million in 1999 to $3 billion in 2002, according to market research by the Cahners In-Stat Group. And while wired office complexes were until recently the real estate rage (see "High-Wired Competition," Inc. Technology, No. 4, 2000), their wireless descendants are beginning to steal the spotlight today. In Seattle a developer is constructing a new building with no wiring for technology or telephone service, for instance; tenants -- mostly high-tech businesses to start out -- will arrange for their own wireless service.

While everybody mentions the system's mobility first, pioneers insist that their wire-free LANs save money, too. True, laptop computers often cost more up front than their deskbound counterparts. But other no-wire network hardware costs far less. Minerva Tantoco Hobbs, director of eTechnology for Miami-based consulting firm Answerthink, says companies can expect to spend less than $1,000 for a wireless-network hub, plus $100 to $200 for the plug-in cards that older laptops need to communicate with the base station. (Although it's possible to convert desktop computers using the same cards, there's usually no advantage in going that route because full-size machines aren't designed for easy portability. So companies currently without notebook computers would, of course, need to add in the cost of buying them. However, many new notebooks from Apple, Dell, IBM, Acer, Sony, and other vendors now come with built-in wireless capability.)

In addition, wire-free companies save on every foot of cable they don't use, every piece of hardware they don't buy, and every hour of labor they don't spend installing, upgrading, maintaining, or moving computers -- especially when those changes involve tearing out walls, ceilings, or floors. "It literally takes 10 minutes to put a wireless-network card in a computer and get it configured," Hill says. "Compare that with the man-hours you need to run a wire through drywall." In WebLinc's case, the costs of going wireless included buying three AirPort base stations at about $300 each and some 20 plug-in cards at $99 to $150 each, depending on the type of computer involved. In general, switching requires little or no training: untethered users work on the same network as everyone else; they just connect to it differently.

However, wireless technology has limits that many companies may find unacceptable. Most available systems won't let users wander more than 150 feet from the base station, which works like a cellular-telephone tower, connecting individual users to the network. And there can be side effects. After installing its wireless LAN, WebLinc had to buy new telephones because all its cordless models operated on the same frequency as the computer network, causing unbearable static during calls.

Like any true believers, executives in wire-free workplaces seem convinced they're just the first of many who will find the path to enlightenment.

Like many other innovations, the no-wire environment began on college campuses. In the past couple of years, at least a dozen schools, ranging from tiny Mount St. Mary College, in Newburgh, N.Y., to the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, have gone wireless. Students, faculty, and staff at those schools can log on to their networks from anywhere on campus. The colleges like the convenience of wireless networking. Beyond that it helps cut the phone-line congestion caused by hundreds of students dialing into the Internet simultaneously.

Early on, most businesses didn't have the patience for wireless systems, which, at best, moved data at about one-fifth the speed of normal networks. But thanks to recent advancements (see "Going Mobile," below), wireless data now moves at a respectable 10 or 11 megabits per second, about the same speed as wired connections provide. Meanwhile, costs for wireless-network cards dropped from as much as $600 two years ago to generally less than $200 today.

With speed and cost issues resolved, businesses began to see advantages to going wireless. Some adopted wireless LANs as a way to quickly expand their existing networks. Others went 100% wireless. Veritel Corp., in Chicago, which makes voice-verification technology, expanded from 6 to 32 employees last year and expects to reach 80 this year. Instead of rewiring its offices for each new staffer, the company opted to use an all-wireless network from CenterBeam, allowing employees to move around inside the building. Besides, "creativity at your desk is kind of an oxymoron," says Veritel CEO Christopher Tomes. "This allows you to take your technology into whatever space you choose."

The movement isn't limited to high-tech companies either. Hospitals, factories, warehouses, stores, car-rental agencies, and other businesses are converting to wireless LANs, too. (See "Where the Wires Aren't," below.)

At Blueprint Ventures, in San Francisco, all 10 employees switched to a wireless LAN last year. General partner Bart Schachter credits the change with streamlining the venture-capital firm's meetings. "We can pick up and go to a conference room, and it's like we never left our desks. You don't know until you have wireless access how often somebody says 'Oh, what's the answer to this question?' and you can look it up right there," says Schachter, whose company has invested in MobileStar and other wireless technologies. "You can take notes right there. You don't have to go back to your office and type them in. Productivity goes up 1,000%."

And at West Coast Office Interiors Superstore, in Santa Clara, Calif., employees can move freely through showrooms and offices, checking inventory, placing orders, and printing out receipts and invoices. The company's CenterBeam network helps salespeople close deals on the spot, instead of taking up to a week to complete paperwork.

With all the benefits of going wireless, are transactions as secure as they would be traveling through wires and cables? Early adopters insist their wireless LANs are at least as secure as traditional hard-wired networks, but even true believers worry about the potential threat from letting sensitive information literally float around.

WebLinc's Hill says that if he were running a financial company instead of a Web-design firm, he wouldn't use a wireless network. As he puts it, "All security can be broken." But in the case of his own company, he's confident that information is as secure as it needs to be.

"People can tap into any network, wired or wireless," says Pete Privateer, president of Pelican Security, a computer-crime-prevention company in Chantilly, Va. Theoretically, hackers can infiltrate a wireless LAN from outside the building, just as they can break into a traditional network over the Internet or telephone lines. (However, they couldn't be too far outside the building, given the technology's maximum radius of 150 feet and its inability to penetrate the building's brick walls.) But, Privateer and others say, the newer wireless technologies -- the same ones that enable high-speed access -- can be set to encrypt information so that only authorized users can decode it. "If there's encryption, the hacker won't get anything but garbage and won't be able to pick anything out of it," Privateer says.

He also suggests that companies adopt systems in which employees must change their password every time they log in. That measure, combined with encrypting every transmission, may frustrate some users. But such precautions can help companies like WebLinc ensure that the only people who are looking into their computer systems from the outside are their own employees, sunbathing on the roof.

Like all true believers, executives in wire-free workplaces seem convinced they're just the first of many who will find the path to enlightenment. "In 5 to 10 years, I think the world will be wireless," says Schachter, pointing out that other countries, including the Philippines, Finland, and Japan, already lead the United States in widespread adoption of the technology. "We don't have to dream the future," he says. "The future is happening."

Where the Wires Aren't ...

If there's still any doubt that wireless networking is about to go mainstream, consider this: Starbucks plans to offer wire-free Internet access in 2,100 of its 3,000 North American coffee shops within two years. In November 2000, desktop king Bill Gates introduced a prototype of the Tablet, the first Microsoft wireless computer, to much fanfare at the Comdex trade show; the device was among thousands of hot new wireless products dominating the event. Wayport Inc., in Austin, increasingly offers wireless access in airports, hotels, resorts, and conference centers; the service lets business travelers hop online without hunting for a phone line. And in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in downtown Cincinnati, a dozen start-up companies share a single high-speed wireless network, creating, in essence, a virtual business community.

Going Mobile

If you're thinking about switching to a wireless network, you need to know about Wi-Fi. Also known by the less-friendly designation IEEE 802.11b, Wi-Fi -- for wireless fidelity -- refers to the newest technical standard for wireless networking. The standard boosts networking speed from sluggish -- 2Mb, or 2 million bits of information per second -- to supercharged at 11Mb per second. That allows wireless networks to run faster than traditional Ethernet networks, which top out at 10Mb. And that's why businesses everywhere are suddenly interested in Wi-Fi. (Don't confuse Wi-Fi with the much-publicized Bluetooth standard, which permits only short-range radio links between small personal devices like handheld computers and cell phones.) The Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, a high-tech industry group, awards Wi-Fi certification to wireless-networking products that meet its standards. For more information, visit www.wi-fi.org.

Please e-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.