Untangling Wireless

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Given the opportunity to choose networks for the major offices of UHY Advisors, Matt Camden picked wireless. "We think this will allow us to dismantle our IP Frame network at UHY and rely solely on various broadband Internet solutions to connect our offices and move our data," says Camden, CIO for Chicago-based UHY.

As UHY standardizes its system, Camden has the opportunity many technologists don't get-to build a system almost from scratch-and with 20 offices and a staff of 1,250 in 12 states from Massachusetts to California, it has needs and resources that many smaller firms don't.

This move is not for technology's sake alone. It's for the sake of the bottom line, because building a wireless network will be about $20,000 a month cheaper than building a private data network through avoiding costs for access fees, hardware, and staff support.

Partner Insights

Wireless Glossary:

Beyond Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity, has become one of the most popular terms in discussing wireless local area networking. But there are a lot more technologies and terms to do with. More are coming.

If users feel confused by all the terms, they have good reason. "It's a technical zoo," says Randy Johnston, a partner in the K2 Enteprises consulting group.

Here is a basic guide to some of the commonly used terms.

Bluetooth. A radio frequency standard, operating at 2.45GHz, Bluetooth has low power, and is designed to prevent interference with other devices. However, that limits transmission to about 30 feet. Bluetooth devices can form a network with up to seven other devices, as opposed to infrared-based systems, such as those used for remote controls for television sets, which can command only one device at a time. The current standard, Bluetooth 1.2, operates at 723 Kpbs. The newer Bluetooth 2.0 can operate to 3Mbps. The name is taken from Harald Bluetooth, king of Denmark in the late 900s, and has nothing to do with the technology.

EVDO. EVDO was originally an acronym for Evolution Data Only, but now stands for Evolution Data Optimized. It relies on a transmission technology called Code Division Multiple Access. CDMA is common in cellular transmission in the United States. There are already EVDO phones, data cards, and mobile routers for sale, but the technology is not yet widely available. It has a range of about 10 miles from a cell phone tower. The standard speed is 800Kbps, but versions are available at faster than 2Mbps.

GSM. GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) is a European standard that is reportedly the most widely used technology. The use of GSM 900 is why American cell phones, based on a variety of other standards, don't work in Europe.

WiMax. WiMax stands for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, is based on the IEEE 802.16 standards. In practical terms, it is supposed to provide a wireless access range of 31 miles. Motorola is a major promoter of WiMax. Intel is expected to put WiMax chips into lap tops in 2007 or 2008. There are also going to be WiMax telephones.

UHY's decision shows how far and how fast wireless is emerging in business. It's a lot more than just Wi-Fi, cell phones, and PDAs, as devices with multiple capabilities and competing standards reshape voice and data communication.

With the new platform, the Chicago office will be totally wireless, "with only a skeleton wired back-up capability," says Camden.

This year, UHY is also positioning broadband wireless from vendors such as Verizon to be the tertiary access system, after wired T1 and DSL and cable, for other offices.

One reason for the leap to wireless is the firm's growth. The Chicago office has grown from a staff of 275 to 450 in 18 months.

"You just can't grab office space that quickly," says Camden. The office increasingly utilizes 'hoteling' with employees making reservations for space in the office only when necessary. All major offices have some systems that rely on wireless technology.

"We think we can double in size and not add any square footage," says Camden.

This is important, since most growth has been in the auditing and consulting areas, with staff members who spend most of their time at client sites, utilizing portable devices to connect to the office systems.

Camden also plans to replace the point-to-point dedicated MCI voice lines with locally provided Internet-based voice systems.

Many smaller firms are unlikely to be considering the scale of installation that UHY is implementing, especially since it is trying to standardize systems for offices that were brought together when the firm was formerly known as Centerprise Advisors.

However, many firms have already embraced Wi-Fi and cellular telephones for mobile employees, such as auditors and consultants.

Which Wireless?

But as the technology rapidly evolves, the question for many firms is not whether to use wireless systems, but which wireless system or systems will provide the main tools for the next few years.

Right now, many firms rely on Wi-Fi for local access and cellular cards for laptops for longer distances. Most mobile workers have cell phones, PDAs, or devices that increasingly offer a mixture of voice and data connections.

But it's a hodgepodge of devices. What workers really want "is anywhere, anytime computing, right now. Anybody can be free to roam and be on the network at broadband speed," says David Cieslak, principal of the Encino, Calif.-based Information Technology Group.

Cieslak, and some other CPA technologists, are not fans of Wi-Fi, the system that is most commonly used to provide Internet access for laptops. Wi-Fi's range thins out rapidly. It is supposed to be 300 feet from any wireless access point.

Cieslak favors EVDO, which underlies the Verizon unlimited national broadband, available at $59.95 a month. It's the system Cieslak uses.

"We've got all the partners with EVDO cards in their laptops," says Cieslak. "I rarely use my 802.11 features because of all the capabilities."

The good thing about such systems is that they don't chain users to transmission hot spots since they are available wherever the carrier provides cellular service and the transmission speed is 1.5Mbps. Because accountants and consultants can receive and send data without logging into the client's network, these systems also raise fewer security issues.

Cieslak sees Wi-Fi as a temporary hit. "This is going to be short-lived stuff. If I'm T-Mobile, I'm going to sweat," he says.

He also advises businesses not to make long-term commitments to communications equipment. "If you get two years out of a communications technology, consider yourself pretty lucky," he says.

Like Cieslak, Randy Johnston is predicting that the buying horizon for wireless products should be considered short-range. In November, Johnston was advising people not to buy cell phones until this month because of all the new features being unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show. He was expecting handsets with high-speed data support and perhaps some that support Voice over Internet Protocol.

Johnston: Picking Your Way through the Cell Mine Field

There are a lot of changes going on in cellular technology that affect both businesses and consumers.

Randy Johnston of K2 Enterprises, gives some advice for buyers who are trying to determine what to buy as wireless devices that handle voice and data evolve rapidly. Here is a summary of his recommendations.

Faster devices are coming quickly. There will be faster connectivity to data services, and support capabilities such as video for voice services. These may lessen the need for, or interest in, Wi-Fi hotspots.

Devices with multiple functions proliferate. Handsets that support cell phone systems, will also support Wi-Fi systems inside of businesses to take advantage of voice over IP over Wi-Fi (VoFi).

Cell phones go global. Many cell phones will have international standard support. International features such as toll-free calling to Canada or Europe will also be more frequent contract options.

Operating system options increase. Phone operating systems will include Pocket PC, Palm, Symbian, and Linux. All will connect to email systems, such as Microsoft Exchange.

Contracts with wireless providers will evolve. There should be convergence in this area to support voice and data on a single device.

One phone will do it all. New systems will support VoIP features in conjunction with office systems. Eventually, a single phone can be used in the office, car, and home.

Pick your connection technology. Focus on the new, higher-data connection speeds represented by WCDMA and 1xEV-DO. Consider where you intend to use your phone, whether it is locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally.

Buying new phones will become more challenging in the short term. Be cautious or don't buy instruments that are offered as special deals. Combination devices will be the wave of the future.

Watch for additional features. WiFi, VOIP, camera, size, speaker phone, MP3 player, video streaming, and other technological advancements. If you intend to do international travel, buy phones that support GSM.

Don't renew cell contracts. Let your cell phone contract go month to month while making your decision. Many times it is cheaper to switch carriers and get a new cell phone.

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