It was late one night at the offices of Shopper Shuttle, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based transportation service that serves the tourist trade. Co-founder Camille Alcasid had an epiphany.
In the middle of rearranging the office for a new employee, she asked herself a question: Why do we need all these wires?
"After untangling the first couple of devices, it became obvious to me," says Alcasid. "We need to move things around without hassles." That moment started an avalanche of wireless activity. Today, the computers in the office are wireless; the company’s Private Branch Exchange phone system is online; and, of course, all employees are on call via cell phones.
An increasing number of businesses are following in Shopper Shuttle's footsteps. A study by Insight Research Corp., of Boonton, N.J., forecasts that the number of business landlines will steadily decrease through the end of the decade, from 54 million lines today to 44 million by the year 2010. These traditional circuit switched lines will be replaced by newer, less expensive technologies, including Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), cellular, VoWLAN VoIP, the latter being VoIP over a Wi-Fi wireless network. According to Infonetics Research, wireless LAN (local area network) equipment sales are at $654 million and are expected to continue well through 2009.
Wires are so 20th century. Here’s how to get your business out of the stone ages:
THE BOTTOM LINE
The first step is to look at the impact on your bottom line. Computers will require a wireless modem (though many already have them built in) and a wireless router. The router is the gatekeeper to the Internet: all your office equipment communicates with the router, while the router communicates with the World Wide Web. A wide variety of routers are available at your local electronics store. Finally, the high-speed Internet connection is available through AT&T, Verizon and other local phone service companies, and can run $30 or more a month.
And before you put down that money, think about if you really need to go wireless. “If mobility isn’t important to your business, you may be wasting your time worrying about a wireless network,” says Microsoft online editor Monte Enbysk. “But more and more businesses today have workers who don’t camp out in offices all day.”
If you decide to go forward, a wire from the router (the only wire in the office) will connect to the wall’s cable or DSL outlet. The router should be placed high, like on a bookshelf, and near the center of the office.
The next step in the transformation is to convert your office computers to laptops. Desktop computers can also have wireless modems, but tying your computer to a desk seems to defeat the purpose of having a wireless office in the first place.
Make sure the new computers have a built-in (internal) wireless card. External wireless cards are available, but internal ones require no assembly – just press a button and it will pick up on all the available wireless routers in the area.
Converting to laptops also enables your employees to have wireless offices wherever they may go, since their modems would pick up on any wireless router available worldwide. Be aware that the days of free wireless connections are pretty much over – most airports and hotels now charge a nominal amount for their once pro-bono service.
For most companies, the biggest concern in going wireless is usually the phone line. With the number of companies foregoing the landline, virtually all cell phone carriers offer business plans that support multiple phones. Business plans are different than traditional plans because they offer feature helpful extras, typically including pooled anytime minutes, which reduce the cost of calling during business hours by taking a company's minutes as a unit, rather than by individual phones; unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling plans, which allow a company to "network" its cells; call forwarding and call waiting, two staples of phone communication; and even conference calling.
Be aware that some plans require everyone to have the exact same type of phone – at least initially. Also, looser plans, such as “calling circles,” enable everyone to call each other for unlimited minutes every month.
Replacing the fax is a little trickier, but still a practical alternative to keeping your antiquated large machine. This may be the easiest problem to solve. Low-cost programs such as Send 2 Fax and Mighty Fax make it easy to receive faxes through the Internet. They can be saved and printed out for signatures or archival purposes.
Sending faxes is more complicated, as the act requires a scanner. But scanners typically cost under $100, though super-compact ones will cost more. It may be worth the money to get a tiny scanner if you’re getting rid of the fax machine.
The desired document must be scanned into the computer and sent to the recipient over the Internet line. Purchased software can help you with this, too, though PC and Mac owners can use Microsoft Office or Outlook and other default e-mail software to fax items as well.
Finally, experts say wireless equipment is about twice as vulnerable to hacker attacks as landline equipment. Many can be avoided by adding a network key: a simple password system that helps prevent interlopers from stealing your bandwidth or, worse, your information.
Matthew Gast, author of 802.11 Wireless Networks: The Definitive Guide, says on O’Reilly Media’s Wireless Devcenter that it’s smart to be cautious, but not afraid of going wireless. “Although wireless LAN security can seem challenging because of the press it has generated, most of the challenges can be addressed by reasonable security precautions,” he writes.