Give Me a Wi-Fi

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Freedom from cables gives firms flexibility.

by Robert Scott

Becoming chairman of the American Institute of CPAs brought great honor and responsibility to Scott Voynich. It also brought a great commitment to travel—75 percent of his time is on the road, while trying to maintain his duties as the managing partner of Robinson Grimes.

Partner Insights

“My schedule is pretty well mapped out until next October,” says Voynich, who has held the top job at the Columbus, Ga.-based firm for the last 15 years.

Although not a technologist, Voynich became a guinea pig for his firm’s experiment with wireless technology. After a recent trip, he notes, “My wife asked, ‘Would you like me to drive so you can work?’” So Voynich rode in the back seat, using his laptop to check on projects in the office, courtesy of the wireless PC card that his notebook computer is equipped with.

A Wi-Fi Glossary

Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity, has become one of the most popular terms in discussing wireless local area networking.
Like many hi-tech terms, Wi-Fi is a popular equivalent to an industry standard-in this case, the 802.11b specification from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Wi-Fi is 802.11b, while there are also 802.11, 802.11a, and 802.11g, h, and i. These four standards provide the same networking capabilities and speed that Ethernet provides in traditional cabled local area networking.
The 802.11b system operates at speeds of up to 11mgbs. While 802.11a can produce higher speeds, it can fall to speeds slower than the b standard when used in a network mixing wireless and wired computers, says Jeff Zalusky, managing director in charge of IT risk management services for Washington, D.C.-based UKW Advisors. He continues that the "g" standard, which is much faster, is rapidly being accepted. The "h" standard provides better security and "i" is a developing security standard.
The importance of standards is that systems that use them can exchange data, regardless of which company manufactures the devices and software.
Another technology that has been discussed popularly is called Bluetooth, a chip-based technology that provides voice and data connection between devices such as mobile phones, computers, and PDAs. It can be used through walls, but only up to a range of about 35 feet.

“It’s been a huge lifesaver,” says Voynich, who describes himself as “a computer user, yes; a technical person, not.”

Voynich can access all of the applications remotely, part of that due to the Citrix environment used back at the office. The firm recently switched from a hodge-podge of applications to ProSystem applications. Voynich can run these from wherever he is, thanks to the newest generation of computing capabilities.

Not everyone’s travel escalates as suddenly as Voynich’s did. But increasingly, businesses are looking to wireless technology to bring the same flexibility to networked computing and Internet access that handheld devices such as cell phones, PDAs, and Blackberry devices have brought to voice communication and the exchange of email.

While Voynich’s use of the wireless PC card is experimental, the use of wireless technology at the firm’s offices is not. Craig Rhinehart, the firm’s director of IT services, notes that the 50-person firm has been set up for wireless networking for the last year.

“Our entire business is covered by wireless access points,” he says. “All of our accounting staff have laptops. They can go into the training room and maintain full connectivity to the network and do whatever they want to do.”

The firm’s experience illustrates the benefits of two rapidly growing technologies involved in wireless voice and data communication. The wireless cards are PC cards utilizing the CDMA protocol, which are plugged into a portable computer to enable the user to access email and the Internet via cellular communication signals. Wi-Fi, which also involves equipping computers with plug-in cards, provides wireless networking. Wi-Fi rests on hot sites, Web Access Points, which are often physically connected to an organization’s network. WAPs have a broadcast range that can extend to 300 feet indoors and up to 1,500 feet outdoors.

Robinson Grimes installed six access points, with two covering the conference room to provide load balancing in case many persons were accessing the network at the same time. The system was relatively inexpensive: each access point cost about $400. Each point can accept two Wi-Fi cards, which cost about $100 each, bringing the total cost to about $4,000.

How does that compare to cabling the building? In one way, it’s impossible to say, because that kind of building-wide access cannot be established through a cabled system.

“I would have to have cabled every point in the office where I would have wanted to place a computer,” says Rhinehart. “If I want to walk 10 feet down the hall and stop, I can do it. If I am working on a hot little project, I don’t have to call a co-worker into my office.”

Wireless is hot. Besides the fact that businesses such as Barnes and Noble and Starbucks have installed WAPs to support wireless connections, and with notebooks now sold with Wi-Fi cards installed, wireless has the feel of the next great trend in computing.

Commuters in particular could benefit from wireless networking, says Randy Johnston, vice president of the K2 consulting group.

“There are moves to put 802.11 in all the trains,” says Johnston. The 802.11 specification represents a series of standards for wireless networking that brings the capabilities of Ethernet-based network to networks without cables.

But ignoring the massive adoption of cell phones and handheld devices like PDAs and palms, wireless technology in the form of the networking of desktop PCs and remote access to both networks and the Internet has just started to make an impact with public firms. As with portable computing, much of the current adoption of wireless is being driven by the needs of auditors to collaborate in the field and to lessen the amount of material they need to carry with them.

Field Work

“One of the biggest challenges of being in the field is as an auditor,” says Trey James, president of Xcentric, an Atlanta-based firm that provides networking services to CPA firms. Xcentric has packaged a variety of systems together called the Wireless Audit Team solution, which James notes “is nothing more than different products configured together.”

James points out that Wi-Fi technology speeds are acceptable for email, but for running applications, firms must be using either Citrix or Windows Terminal Server. Trying to run accounting and tax applications over a wireless network without those environments would likely cause the vendor to say the user’s system is not supported.

How Safe Is Wireless?

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