Wi-Fi has come a long way in recent years. It’s cheaper, faster, easier to set up, easier to use and offers a number of irresistible advantages to companies, especially for small and mid-sized businesses that tend to move around more often as they expand. It’s much easier to pack up wireless gear and never have to worry about dropping Cat 5 cable every time a company signs a new lease.

“All the technology pieces are in place now and people are starting to take advantage of it. Connecting is a lot better than a few years ago," says Larry Jamison, director of the Hard Copy Industry Advisory Service at Lyra Research, an IT research firm in Newtonville, Mass.

Some of those technology pieces include the following:

The arrival of 802.11n

To understand the emergence of Wi-Fi, it requires a short history lesson in 802.11, the set of industry standards and protocols for wireless networking. 802.11a was the first set of standards. But, it was short lived and quickly replaced by 802.11b that went on the market back in 2000.

802.11b has since been supplanted by the much faster and desirable 802.11g, which most companies still use today. Though not formally adopted as an industry standard yet, what is sometimes called “pre-n” (short for 802.11n) has really made some gigantic leaps in improving the wireless experience.  802.11n wireless products are much faster and have fewer conflicts with other electronic devices, like microwave ovens and portable phones.

The deployment of virtual private networks

According to AMI Partners, a New York City-based research firm that specializes in IT and telecom analysis, 75% of all businesses with 50 to 500 employees now has a VPN in place. The secure sockets layer (SSL) VPN has made this especially attractive for adoption. It’s relatively inexpensive, encrypted, web-based and turn-key for companies to rollout through a third party vendor.

More points of access

According to JWire, a mobile advertising networking company that tracks and reports on wireless trends, there are now more than 50,000 public wireless hotspots in the United States alone, with 140,000 globally.  Dialing in from the road has never been easier.

USB compatibility

More companies, like Mountain View, Calif. Synopsys that just announced its USB certification in November, are making it possible for more wireless devices to integrate together and with other kinds of hardware.

Still not perfect

Despite the almost overnight rush to all thing wireless, Wi-Fi still has some major issues to overcome.

  • Still not easy enough to use or implement. Anyone who has set up a wireless network, at home or on the job, can attest it’s usually not easy. Todd Carter, author of the Wireless All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies even admits his own struggles despite his established expertise. “I just couldn’t get it to work,” says Carter.
  • Batterylife. “Wireless technologies are great, but usually there’s a battery involved and batteries have to be charged often. The next big break for wireless will come with fuel cells or at least higher capacity batteries,” says Dan Gookin, author of PCs for Dummies.

Meantime, here are five tips for small to mid-sized businesses to make the most of Wi-Fi now, as offered by Mark Tauschek, a senior research analyst from Ontario, Canada-based InfoTech Research:

  1. Avoid conflicts with other wireless networks. This is especially tricky in office buildings in close proximity of other businesses or even residential areas. Test the frequencies and locations of access points. If there is bleed over, be proactive and work it out with your neighbors.
  2. Get rid of any 802.11b wireless pieces that are still in use. 802.11n and 802.11b are backwards compatible. They work with each other and earlier versions like 802.11b. However, the slower versions bring down the speed of the faster versions.
  3. Troubleshoot the physical office space before going wireless. “For example, wireless signals will not go through concrete and rebarb floors or windows with wire mesh that are often used in office doors,” says Tauschek. That could be a problem if the business is spread throughout two floors with the wrong kind of floor in between.
  4. “Deploy access points fairly close together,” says Tauschek. The further away employees get from the access point, the weaker the signal, the spottier the coverage and the slower the network gets. It’s worth it to be generous distributing plenty of access hubs. Another advantage of the newer 802.11n technology is it’s faster and operates at a wider range.
  5. Consider other conflicts.802.11b and g operate on the 2.4 GHz frequency. That’s identical to many microwave ovens and portable phones. 802.11n operates on the 5 GHz frequency which also conflicts with some phones and other electronics. Be prepared to shuffle or switch out some of the other gear around the office to keep your signals safe and strong.