The next-generation standard for wireless networking will have a great impact on small businesses, allowing more workers the freedom to work, collaborate, and be productive without being tethered to wires. That is the one thing about the much-ballyhooed standard, 802.11n, now under development, that is certain.

But whether your business must wait to upgrade or can take advantage now depends most on how small your business is.

The 802.11n standard -- expected to replace the 802.11g standard in place since 2003 -- promises to improve the range, speed, and security of wireless local area networks (WLANs), which are becoming increasingly common in the small business world. That means employees in an office will be able to wirelessly exchange data, access the Internet, or take advantage of cheaper phone calling over the Internet. This is because speeds will exceed what's offered using wire-based Ethernet and up to four times as fast as current wireless standards.

Many of the current problems with using wireless in an office are expected to be resolved with the new wireless standard, known alternately as just 11n or wireless-n. For one thing, wireless-n is expected to eliminate “dead spots” in the office. In addition, new security features can make businesses rest assured that their sensitive company data is safe and that hackers won't imperil their systems.

Really small companies don't need to wait

The long-awaited 802.11n standard has been caught up in the IEEE standards-making process and has already been delayed several times. Originally supposed to be in place by 2006, subsequent delays have come about in part because of wide-ranging interest in the standard. At this stage, final ratification is expected in early to mid-2008.

That's posed a dilemma for start-ups and other small businesses that are looking for WLAN products now. In anticipation of the new standard, “wireless-n-compatible” products already have been flooding the home-based business and small business market. Meanwhile, professional-grade product makers have opted to push their releases back as long as possible to include any last-minute changes in their wares.  

What’s a small business to do?

Small businesses with under 100 employees wanting to upgrade may as well make the jump now, advises Rodney Hall, president of Rodney B. Hall & Associates, a value-added reseller based in Cheltenham, Pa.  “We’re putting in [small business-grade] wireless-n compatible Linksys routers for people already,” notes Hall, an engineer.  “Businesses this size just don’t have the amount of traffic going across the router that will cause them any problem.”

Hall says he’s confident in the Cisco-owned Linksys product, noting that Linksys will make any final changes required by the standard available in downloadable form to its customers.

But businesses any bigger should wait for stronger wireless-n products to be released before upgrading, Hall says. “The [wireless-n compatible] routers out there aren’t designed to handle too much traffic,” he notes. “If you try it now, your router may not hold up.”

Chris Silva, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, advises that, overall, “those small and medium-sized businesses that don’t have Wi-Fi now would be wise to wait for the new standard. If they do, they will essentially be future-proofed for the next 5-7 years.”

Silva recommends that those with an interest in upgrading to 802.11n conduct an audit of their WLAN -- figure out if they need more bandwidth, and what additional devices they might need, such as hand-helds and laptops. With this information at the ready, they will be prepared to refresh their Wi-Fi when the new standard comes.

The future wireless office

The 802.11n standard will increase Wi-Fi range to as much as two city blocks, beyond the 300-foot range provided by the current standard, 802.11g. The new standard is expected to improve patchiness in existing WLAN range, such as in building stairways and elevators, where Wi-Fi often doesn’t operate.

But perhaps most importantly, it will more than quadruple Wi-Fi voice and data transmission speeds, providing speeds of about 270 megabits/second (Mbps). At present, speeds allowed under the previous three IEEE standards (802.11a, b, and g) range from 2 Mbps to 54Mbps. The new standard will be the first that can truly support multimedia transmission, a fact that has the PC, consumer-electronics and cellphone industries keenly involved in the standard’s development.

An IEEE working group approved a draft 2.0 standard March 12, a sign that deliberations are nearly complete. A final draft, however, is not expected until early to mid-2008.

Nonetheless, hardware companies have broken ranks on how best to prepare for  802.11n, with those serving the consumer/small business market already offering products. Intel’s Centrino semiconductor-chip line is billed as “Next-Gen Wireless N” compatible, and laptops including it are already for sale. Any changes to the standard could be uploaded onto Centrino through software, Intel’s website explains. Likewise, Linksys’s home/small business market router has been available for over a year. In addition to higher speed and reliability, the router offers numerous new security features, according to Linksys spokesman Trevor Bratton.

But many providers of business-class routers and access points are waiting to offer new products until late 2007 so that their products require few if any changes. Companies such as Cisco, Aruba Networks and Nortel Networks “are currently limited to hardware based on ratified 802.11 standards,” according to a November 2006 Forrester Research report.  

The new standard also seems to be triggering new levels of customer service. In an effort to reach out and educate its clients, access point-manufacturer Xirrus Inc. has created a “802.11n resource center” on its website that includes print-ready posters explaining the new standard and its predecessors.

In the end, it appears that the very smallest companies -- and home users -- will have the jump on enjoying the benefits of wireless-n. But for the rest, there’s assurance in knowing that 802.11n will be worth the wait.