Technology

Cutting the Cord

Learn How to Create and Secure a Wireless Network in Your Office.

Tired of tripping over computer cables in your office? Is the lack of a conference room broadband connection hampering client presentations? If so, it's time you considered going wireless.

Wireless networks let commercial real estate professionals access company files, print documents, send e-mail, and browse the Internet without being shackled to their desks. Depending on office size, wireless networks can be cost-competitive with wired systems and offer enormous benefits, such as more-efficient meetings and increased productivity.

Due to the almost overwhelming amount of available products and options, you should identify exactly how your office plans to use a wireless network before purchasing and installing equipment. Security is another important concern, as passers-by and those with more-sinister agendas easily can access wireless signals. Knowing the considerations and choices, as well as understanding the unwieldy terminology, is the first step toward implementing your office's wireless network.

Why Wireless?

Commercial real estate professionals cite mobility as the dominant factor in making the decision to install wireless networks in their offices.

Alex Nottmeier, CCIM, a broker at Real Turner Realty in Bowling Green, Ky., took his office wireless at the beginning of the year. “By going wireless we are able to access the Internet and e-mail throughout the entire office. This is very helpful when presenting in our conference room.” The company's Web page is a critical part of its marketing strategy, and clients' ability to access it during presentations is beneficial, he says.

A wireless network also facilitates meetings at Greensboro, N.C.-based Kotis Properties, says William “Marty” Kotis III, CCIM, the company's president. “We use it primarily when we have clients or all need to sit around a table and go over some information,” he says. He installed a wireless network in each of the company's office locations and equipped the brokers with wireless adapter cards for their laptops and handheld devices. “It's very easy to go from your house to your office to another office and never have to plug in,” Kotis says.

Nottmeier agrees that brokers' ability to connect to the company's network at home is beneficial, although this capability may not be feasible for large offices. Each broker's house must be equipped with a router programmed to the office's network and security settings; while routers are relatively inexpensive (around $100 or less), this cost could add up for large companies. But for Nottmeier's three brokers, accessing the company network at home “has increased productivity dramatically,” he says.

Wireless networks also can be more cost-effective and are easier to install than their wired counterparts. When relocating his office, “running cable in a concrete structure didn't seem like a reasonable alternative,” says Ari Feldman, CCIM, CIPS, SIOR, president of MIHC in Mexico City. “It meant having either plain wire or conduit out in the open … [Wireless] is faster to install, cleaner, and far more flexible and economical than laying cable.” Feldman's three-person office network cost about $330, not including wireless-enabled laptops.

Setting Up a Wireless Network

Installing a small-office wireless network is a fairly easy process. The basic equipment comprises an access point, which acts as a bridge between the broadband connection and laptops, personal digital assistants, printers, and other peripherals. For a list of Web sites offering comprehensive installation guidance, search the magazine for articles on wireless technologies..

The following five steps encompass many of the decisions you must make before deploying a wireless system.

Choose the Right Network. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers sets wireless networking standards to ensure products from different vendors can work together. After standards are published, the Wi-Fi Alliance tests and certifies products that meet strict compatibility requirements. Locate a list of Wi-Fi certified products at www.wi-fi.org/OpenSection/certified_products.asp.

IEEE developed 802.11 as the wireless local area network standard. 802.11 is composed of several levels operating in different radio frequencies that offer varying degrees of speed and performance.

The most commonly used wireless network standard is 802.11b, often referred to as Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity. Wi-Fi offers a maximum 11 megabits per second of throughput, or data transfer speed, also known as bandwidth, but performance diminishes when networks are used for large file transfers and multimedia. This standard is recommended for most small offices.

A faster wireless technology is 802.11a, which offers a maximum 54Mbps throughput and is recommended for users regularly sharing large multimedia files. However, 802.11a has less range than Wi-Fi, so users cannot stray very far from the access point. (See chart for a side-by-side comparison.) Mostly employed by large corporations, this standard is incompatible with 802.11b.

Comparing Wireless Technologies


802.11b 802.11a 802.11g
Speed up to 11Mbps up to 54Mbps up to 54Mbps
Frequency 2.4GHz; may compete with cordless phones and microwave ovens 5GHz, a relatively uncrowded band 2.4GHz; may compete with cordless phones and microwave ovens
Range typically 100 feet to 150 feet indoors typically 25 feet to 75 feet indoors typically 100 feet to 150 feet indoors
Public access connects with all public hotspots no public hotspots at this time compatible with 802.11b hotspots
Compatibility compatible with 802.11g incompatible with 802.11b and 802.11g compatible with 802.11b
Availability products widely available products widely available few products currently on the market
Benefits lowest price; coverage penetrates most obstructions; most widely deployed supports more users per room; little signal interference best value — only 10 percent premium for 5 times faster speed than 802.11b
Source: Linksys

The most recently approved standard, 802.11g, promises a maximum bandwidth of 54Mbps and is compatible with 802.11b, so Wi-Fi users easily can upgrade their systems. In fact, telecommunications and networking research company Dell'Oro Group reported that 802.11g revenues grew 48 percent while Wi-Fi revenues dropped in the second quarter, indicating that more users are adopting the new technology. However, 802.11g products are more expensive than 802.11b products, and only a handful currently are Wi-Fi Alliance certified.

Determine the Number of Access Points. Although each standard promises a maximum throughput, you probably won't achieve that speed if more than one person is using the network. This may not be a problem if Internet browsing and e-mail are the primary functions, but file sharing and multimedia hog bandwidth and cause noticeable slowdowns. Typically, one access point supports about 15 to 20 users, which should suffice for small offices, especially those employing 802.11a or 802.11g systems; however, more access points may be needed if speed becomes an issue.

Pick Access Point Locations. An office's size and layout determine access point placement. Since physical structures block radio signals, access points should be located near ceilings in clear areas. To minimize wiring, access points also should be near broadband connections and power outlets.

A variety of antennas on the market enhances range both indoors and outdoors. Wireless signals can range about 2,000 feet outside, so place an access point near an exterior wall if you are planning on working in the park across the street. However, doing so increases outsiders' ability to pick up your office's network signal.

Connect Computers and Peripherals. Additional devices require adapters to connect to wireless networks. Internal adapters are embedded in many laptops, which means no extra parts are needed. About 42 percent of laptops currently hitting the market have embedded WLAN adapters; this number will jump to about 98 percent by 2007, predicts IDC, a technology research company.

Wireless PC cards inserted into expansion slots connect notebook computers without embedded chips. PDAs connect via PC or CompactFlash wireless cards. You also can connect desktop computers to the network via wireless adapters that plug into USB ports.

Many new printers, scanners, and other peripherals are wireless-enabled and connect directly to the network. To use an older device, purchase a wireless print server, which is a combination mini-computer and wireless adapter, and insert it into the printer's expansion slot.

Minimize Interference. Wi-Fi and 802.11g operate in the 2.4-gigahertz range, which is the same frequency used by microwave ovens, cordless phones, and Bluetooth, a wireless technology that connects single-user devices. Thus, regulate use of these devices in your office to reduce interference. Installing more than one access point is another easy way to counteract interference; however, since 802.11b and 802.11g networks only have three channels, purchasing more than three access points for a small office is superfluous.

Switching to the 802.11a standard almost completely eliminates interference, since it operates in the 5GHz frequency range and offers 12 channels. However, this standard's limited range and incompatibility with Wi-Fi and 802.11g could lead to higher costs.

Strong signals reduce interference's impact, so access point location is critical. To ensure your office's access points allow maximum signal strength, perform a radio frequency site survey. Tips on conducting a survey can be found at www.wi-fizone.org/zoneSiteSurvey.asp. Many WLAN vendors, including Cisco, Symbol, and Proxim, offer free tools that expedite the process.

Securing Your Network Since wireless signals travel via radio frequencies, anyone with a receiver can tune into your network. Implementing a security system is essential, especially if you are transmitting confidential client information. In addition to the following technologies, keep access points away from open windows and doors and limit users' access based on their company roles to increase network security.

Three basic security measures are built into wireless access points — all you need to do is activate them. Surprisingly, 60 percent to 80 percent of WLANs operate without these measures, making them vulnerable to hackers, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance.

All access points come programmed with passwords called Service Set Identifiers, and user devices must be configured with the correct SSID to access the network. You also should turn off the SSID broadcast function, which hides your network from hackers.

In addition, wireless network cards are equipped with unique Medium Access Control addresses. Program your access points with approved MAC addresses. MAC filtering limits the connection to those devices with MAC addresses enabled in the access point.

The third basic wireless network security measure is Wired Equivalent Privacy, a protocol that provides an encrypted connection between the access point and wireless adapter cards. Unfortunately, WEP encryption is easy to crack, so you should change the code frequently to minimize attack. All three of these security measures must be managed manually, so they are best suited to small networks.

Virtual Private Network technology is a stronger security measure, but it does not come standard on wireless products. VPN connections secure data between the access point and user device through both authentication and encryption. Unlike SSID, MAC filtering, and WEP, VPN technology easily can be deployed on a large-scale basis, but using it creates performance bottlenecks.

To combat WEP weaknesses, earlier this year the Wi-Fi Alliance released Wi-Fi Protected Access, a collection of security enhancements designed to work with both existing and future networks. WPA provides enhanced data encryption through Temporal Key Integrity Protocol. TKIP constantly changes encryption keys; therefore, even if a hacker captures the key, it will be obsolete by the time he tries to use it. WPA also strengthens user authentication via Extensible Authentication Protocol and 802.1x. This framework employs mutual authentication to guard against users accidentally joining rogue networks that may steal their passwords.

The IEEE is developing 802.11i, a security standard that should be released by year's end. 802.11i will employ all of the enhancements in WPA, as well as several new security measures. In the meantime, most wireless vendors are implementing proprietary security solutions, which may cause compatibility problems in the short term.

The Future of Wireless After a rather lackluster launch several years ago, wireless networks currently dominate the technology scene, and users eagerly are adopting new applications. Since early 2001, more than $1 billion in venture capital has financed Wi-Fi projects, according to Wireless Data Research Group. About 10 percent of those funds has been used to develop hotspots, or public wireless networks, which now number more than 5,000 in the United States alone.

For customers in remote locations such as RV parks where hotspots aren't available, Hughes Network Systems recently launched a pilot program of its satellite Wi-Fi service; commercial service is scheduled for early next year. Business travelers soon will be able to access wireless networks while in flight via Boeing's Connexion service. British Airways, Lufthansa, and Scandinavian Airlines already have signed agreements to equip their aircraft with this technology.

With wireless network vendors and service providers pumping so much money and energy into the market, connection speeds and equipment likely will improve as prices drop. Now is the perfect time to start researching service options and comparing equipment for your office's wireless network.

Gretchen Pienta

William T. Adams, CCIM, CRB, is owner of Adams Realtors in Atlanta. Contact him at 404.688.1222 or wtadams@ccim.net.Gretchen Pienta is associate editor of Commercial Investment Real Estate.

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