Canadian Underwriter
Feature

Going Wireless


February 1, 2004   by Chris Venn


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Wireless communication tools have been used commercially by brokers in a few instances over the past several years, primarily as a method of connecting remote offices. Radio frequency and microwave technologies have been used to create secure links between offices that needed high speed connections but where other connecting solutions either were not available or simply too expensive.

Now, as wireless nudges its way to center-stage, it is quickly making its way indoors as a local area networking (LAN) solution. The early days of wireless technology produced mixed user results. Notably, emerging standards created incompatibilities between certain systems. And managing the impact of weather on the quality of a signal also proved challenging. Security was another problem as some signals were easier to access than others and encryption standards were inconsistent. Then there was the price issue – a very hefty price-tag at that. Essentially, wireless technology began as the “technology of last resort” as a result of the problems outlined above. But, as an increasing number of major technology vendors have shifted attention to wireless solutions, these problems have started to be replaced by reliable and cost-effective tools within a secure environment.

FLEXIBILITY FACTOR

How does wireless technology impact brokers? Wireless networking is flexible. When traditional network cables are installed, they are normally run through the walls and ceilings and typically travel from the location of the server to the location of a workstation or printer. They cost between $100-150 per connection, and are installed by electricians, telephone contractors or cabling companies. They create fixed connection points for technology in the office and are generally considered permanent installations.

With wireless networking, the scenario is different. Only a few network cables are required to run through the office, and normally they travel from the location of the server to the location of where the wireless access point(s) need to be placed. The access points cover a large area – depending on the physical layout and construction of the space – and serve all of the workstations and even printers in that area. The access points can be installed by most computer technicians, provided that they are adequately trained, and the configuration is very quick as opposed to the installation of network cables. Best of all, the networking technology is not a part of the leasehold improvements that must be left behind should the brokerage decide to move property.

This flexibility extends beyond physical connectivity to business operations. From month to month, employees may find themselves performing different tasks in the brokerage in order to appropriately respond to the needs of the business. Sometimes this means physically moving staff in the office to put small teams together with little notice. Wireless networking makes this very easy as compared with traditional networking which presents physical limitations on the location of computers and printers.

Also, with the increased use of notebook computers as replacements for traditional PCs, using wireless tools allows one to be connected to the network anywhere in the office while using a wireless-enabled notebook.

PEAK PERFORMANCE

What should Brokers consider when evaluating wireless networks? Here are a few key pointers:

Speed. The fastest commercially popular wireless connection is 54Mb/s. This is about half the speed of the capacity of normal network cables. However, many offices only run their network connections to workstations at 10Mb/s. As a result, the 54Mb/s is acceptable network capacity for most office workers. If there are staff creating very large commercial proposals or using desktop publishing tools, a 100Mb/s network cable is probably the best choice.

Placement. The phrase to remember is “signal saturation”. The ideal scenario is that each workstation can receive an “excellent” to “very excellent” signal from two separate access points. The access points sometimes fluctuate in the strength of their signals and when they do, the signals collapse back toward the access point. Ensuring that a workstation is well-served by two different access points will help keep the network performance at acceptable levels.

Network Switch. Wireless access points should be plugged into a network switch, not a network hub. A switch will segment network traffic so that data is not unnecessarily broadcast across access points that do not need to be involved with the exchange of a specific piece of data. As an aside, switches have dropped in price dramatically and any hubs that are still in use should be replaced with switches, whether wireless tools are used or not.

Security. By default, wireless access points do not have security tools enabled. As a result, if they are installed without the encryption enabled, creative hackers can park outside of an office and use the wireless signals to access network resources. When installing a wireless network, the encryption must be enabled immediately after connecting the wireless access points and ensuring that the workstations and printers can communicate with them. The encryption is called “WEP”, which stands for “Wired Equivalent Privacy”. The encryption is designed to provide the same level of privacy that a normal network cable provides. That is, one must be connected to the network in order to access information from it.

Wireless networking is growing in popularity. It has finally become fast enough, safe enough, powerful enough and cheap enough to be considered a viable solution. This, in conjunction with the pace at which wireless continues to improve even further, makes it a technology which should not go ignored by brokers aiming for flexibility and increased responsiveness.


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