Wireless LANs

Connect two or more computers using radio signals

Small business and home office users alike have long craved the freedom to connect their network of laptops, desktops, and servers without needing a telephone jack for every unit or having to string cable through holes drilled in the walls or ceilings and then laid along the floor. Now small network users can get the same kind of free mobility that they get from a cell phone with wireless LANs (local area networks).

While wireless LANs aren’t new, cost and performance issues-they were expensive and slow-kept them from making inroads into offices or homes. Most wired office networks use Ethernet cards-available for $20-and most home users connect multiple PCs using existing phone lines (at $100 a hook up).

Over the past year, prices of wireless LANs have dropped significantly, according to the market research firm IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts. Today you can find wireless LAN adapters that cost between $99 and $179 and connect in every way to PCs: internal PCI and ISA cards, external Universal Serial Bus, and PC cards. Wireless LAN adapters cost $200 or more in 1999.

Moreover, a year ago the average data transfer speed for wireless LANs was 1 to 2 megabits per second (Mbps) compared to 10 Mbps for their wire counterparts. Many companies have upgraded their wireless LAN adapters to 11 Mbps, although some actually have throughputs of about 4.9 Mbps when the units are far apart. Using a 56Kbps fax modem to access the Internet and 1 Mbps to share data files is fine for a three-person operation, but any business that needs to process multimedia files with digital photos and high-end graphics will need at least a 10 Mbps network.

Much of the newfound appeal in wireless LANs can be credited to Apple Computers’ introduction of its AirPort networking system for under $100. Since then several vendors have introduced wireless LAN products as a more attractive alternative for the small office/home office (SOHO) market. These big players have also entered the market: 3Com, Compaq, Lucent, Nokia, Nortel, and Cisco.

For small business or home office users interested in wireless networking, here’s the lay of the LAN. Apple’s AirPort package retails for $99 and consists of one card with a data rate of 11 Mbps and a range of 150 feet. Apple’s base station (access point version) retails for $299 (800-538-9696; www.apple.com). Compaq’s wireless PC card retails for $199 (plus $125 for software) with a data rate of 11 Mbps and a range of 150 feet. Its base station retails for $899 (281-514-0484; www.compaq.com). Cisco, which acquired Aironet Wireless last April, now offers the Aironet 340 Series PC cards, which are a little pricey at $249 ($1,299 for an access point) with a data rate of 11 Mbps and ranges of 100 feet indoors and 400 feet outdoors (800-326-1941; www.cisco.com). Lucent’s Orinoco PC card retails for $179 ($995 for access point) with a data rate of 11 Mbps and a range of 1,750 feet (800-WAVELAN; www.wavelan.com). Webgear’s AviatorPro PC and notebook cards retail for $80 with

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