The word “office” conjures up visions out of Dilbert, replete with rows of cubicles and desktop PCs. But these days laptops and tablet PCs are becoming more the norm and with them, an increasing penchant for wireless networks that let employees log on from anywhere on the work campus.

While no one tracks the small business adoption rate for wireless local area networks (WLANs), those who service the sector say demand has spiked. Such need prompted Cisco Systems' unit Linksys to launch a small-business focused line this year. Small businesses value added resellers (VARs) also say wireless is on a tear.

“As laptops and tablet PCs get smaller and smaller, I think it’s a trend that’s only going to continue to grow,” says C.J. Ezell, president of Arrival Systems, a Mobile, Ala. VAR.

Options: consumer grade or professionally installed

It’s easy to see why small businesses are going wireless. Most laptops have built-in wireless connectivity, equipment is generally cheap and, if you keep things simple, it's easy to install. “If you’re buying the consumer-grade stuff, the typical person can usually configure it inside of 30 or 40 minutes,” says Ezell.

For the more sophisticated set-up, it’s a good idea to call in a professional. Marty Wachi, senior product manager at Linksys, says two-thirds of his company’s small businesses customers opt for a VAR. That’s mostly because the higher-end entries have more complicated (and more robust) security features. VARs can also add bells and whistles like virtual private networks (VPNs) that let employees tap into the network securely from home or even the local Starbucks.

But even if you decide to call in a pro, setting up a wireless network is pretty cheap. You can expect to pay between $100 and $400 for equipment and the total cost rarely tops $1,000, even if you hire someone to set it up.

Choices between wireless standards

If you’re intent on setting up a WLAN yourself, it’s easy enough. You can buy a lot of the lower-end “prosumer” equipment at your nearby computer store. As long as you use cable or DSL for your broadband connection, most WLANS are plug-and-play systems. Aside from that, the only variables are speed and range, which boils down to a choice between one of three standards.

  • The older generation of wireless equipment is based on Wireless B (802.11b, a standard introduced in 1999 that averages 6.5 Mbps and has a range of about 100 feet.
  • These days, you’re more likely to get something based on either Wireless G (802.11g) or Draft N (802.11n), which get speeds of 25 Mbps and 200 Mbps and ranges of 100 feet and 160 feet, respectively.
  • The next standard on the horizon is currently referred to as Draft N, because it's merely a draft until the Institute of Electronical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) ratifies the new standard, a move that is expected to happen next year.

There’s lots of Draft N equipment on the market already. Do you need it? That depends on what kind of work you’re doing. “If you’re not going to be doing a lot of printing jobs, G would be sufficient,” says Doug Hagen, director of marketing for Netgear, a maker of wireless networking products from Santa Clara, Calif. “If you’re looking to have room to grow and cover a wide area, then Draft N makes sense.”