Try out these Wi-Fi terms -- 802.11b, 801.11g, and now 802.11n, not to mention 2.4 GHz versus 5 GHz frequencies. For the not-so-techie business owner, shopping for wireless networking gear can put a cramp in the brain quicker than you can say 10/100 megabit Ethernet hub.

Don’t let the geek speak make your eyes glaze over so fast. Once you get past the jargon, wireless networking is actually pretty simple to understand. It’s also an area of technology most companies can’t afford to assemble piece by piece without any forethought or strategy.

Five numbers to understand: 802.11

802.11 are the Wi-Fi industry standards regulated by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The little letter after the 11 indicates the generation of standards, each letter as the alphabet progresses being more sophisticated, faster, and with a wider range of coverage than the previous.

802.11b was the first widely implemented protocol introduced back in 1999 (which makes it a dinosaur now). Most companies are still using 802.11g, which hit the market in 2003 and took off very quickly just as wireless gear was becoming more affordable. It was also a vast improvement over “11b” or Wireless B.  Mainly, it was faster. 

Then along came “11n”

802.11n hasn’t actually been approved by IEEE yet, although all the major wireless vendors are using it in their latest product lines. “The IEEE can’t guarantee the final draft of 802.11n that gets approved will be completely operable with what’s currently on the market. But you now have big companies like Cisco and Trapeze shipping “N” Once that happens, you know it’s safe,” says Mark Tauschek, a senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group.

There are a number of reasons why companies aren’t waiting around for final approval to either sell or purchase Wireless N technologies. “Bottom line: it’s six to eight times faster than '11g' and it has at least a 50 percent wider range.  I will also say this -- I believe 50 percent is a conservative figure based on my own experience using 'N'," says Tauschek

Other differences that set Wireless N apart from Wireless G and B include:

  • Crowded frequency. Wireless B and G operate on the very crowded and unregulated 2.4 GHz frequency making it more likely for interference from everything from other nearby wireless networks to microwave ovens and portable phones. Wireless N is set on the 5 GHz band, which is also not regulated and therefore open to all. However, it hasn’t had the time to jam up yet with other technologies.
  • Less interference. Wireless N runs into less interference from common building architecture than previous generations. “It goes through wood floors, sheet rock, even concrete walls, as long as there’s no wire mesh built into it. Mesh fencing of any kind chops it apart,” says Tauschek.
  • Stronger signal. Wireless N is the first 802.11 generation to feature multiple input/multiple output technology (MIMO). This is the secret sauce that enables 11n’s signal to be so much stronger. When a wireless device beams out a signal it bounces off various surfaces in its path that can cause slight variations in signal strengths. MIMO technology sends out duplicate signals that reinforce each other into one strong signal that goes further and with greater clarity upon arrival at its destination.

Deciding when to upgrade

For companies still operating in an “11g” world, is it time to migrate to “11n”?  The short answer is yes, and no. In other words, it depends on the company in question. It also depends on who you ask.

“Many applications can benefit from increased speed, especially those that involve heavy data transfer. The higher capacity of 802.11n also enables service for a higher density of users,” says Matthew Gast, author of  802.11 Wireless Networks: The Definitive Guide (O'Reilly, 2002). 

Then again; “If you have a 'g' network and you’re not putting a lot strain on it, you can probably wait. Unless your gear is old and decrepit, which is unlikely, there is little reason to upgrade,” counters Tauschek. He says companies, like engineering and graphic design firms, that pass around a lot of large files are most likely to benefit from investing in “11n.”

Tauschek and Gast also agree that if an organization is upgrading their wireless network anyway then “11n” is definitely the way to go. The question is where to begin.

Putting the pieces together

Switching to “11n” is not as simple as just buying a new router and calling it a day. That new Wireless N router will work with the old gear (all 802.11 gear is backwards compatible), but users won’t get the full benefit of the upgrade. Regardless of the router, the network is only as robust as its own hardware.

“The shopping list is fairly straight forward,” says Gast, who narrows it down to these three areas:

  • Wireless N capable access points. Okay, so the bad news is having to pony up for new access points. The good news is that work spaces will need fewer of them. That’s because Wireless N sends out a stronger signal with a wider range.
  • Power for the access points.  This is a feature to shop for within those new access points that will save power and keep the company wireless network as unplugged as possible. Many small-scale access points need to be plugged into the wall.  Better access points can take power over the Ethernet cable connecting them to the network,” says Gast. Before buying the access point, read the fine print on technical specifications and ask the vendor about the product’s “power over Ethernet” capabilities.
  • Faster switch for the network backbone. Older Wireless B and G switches use 10/100 megabit Ethernet ports. In order to take advantage of those dramatic increases in speed that comes with the new “11n,” the network switch needs to be upgraded to a gigabit switch that can accommodate all that extra bandwidth.

Whether a business decides to pull the trigger yet on Wireless N, the company next door may have done so already. That means that there’s likely to be a risk of interference on the 5 GHz frequency bleeding through the walls or even from across the parking lot. Between that and the already clogged up 2.4 GHz frequency, it may be time to consider 6 GHz portable phones.

SIDEBAR: “Wireless N” Networking Products for Small Business

NetGear  Known for its networking hardware solutions, the Santa Clara, Calif.- based company released its ProSafe 802.11 Dual Band Wireless Access Point just this Spring (April 2008). Priced for the small to mid-sized business, ProSafe sells for $475 and includes a gigabit Ethernet port, three antennas, and a console port for local configuration. NetGear also offers a Wireless N router (the RangeMax) for about $120.

Linksys offers a Wireless N gigabit router for about $120 and its Wireless N Access Point priced at $160. As the prices would indicate, these product lines are geared more towards the needs of a small company or home office. Linksys, a division of Cisco, also offers outdoor antennas that are N-compatible, as well as their Wireless-N Gigabit Security Router with VPN tunnel support ($200) and for the road warriors on staff; a Wireless N notebook adapter ($120).

Belkin is another option to consider for entry level businesses looking for modestly-priced networking products. Belkin’s line of Wireless-N routers ranges in price from $90 to $180. They also offer 802.11n adapter cards, desktop cards and a USB adapter.

D-Link now offers a line of Wireless N access points priced between $80 and $160. The high end model only networks up to four devices, however. So this is really meant for either a small business or home. D-link’s business class networking solutions are sticking with Wireless G for now.