When a CPA saves an extra hour or two by stopping at a wireless Internet hot spot and doing some work online, the benefits can be "huge," according to Peter Henley, a CPA and director of information technology at Clark Nuber, a Seattle-based CPA firm. "Those extra hours are what the accounting industry is always trying to gain."With increasing access points to hook onto wireless services and faster connections being built every year, Wi-Fi is becoming the customary way to hook up to the Internet within the accounting industry. Wi-Fi devices - which include not only e-mail capabilities but phone, instant messaging and access to software in the office network - are also saving time and increasing productivity for accountants. Security still remains a concern for many Wi-Fi users; however, data can be easily protected with just a few measures.

Three major networks are used today for Wi-Fi services: personal area networks, local area networks, and wide area networks. PAN services, utilizing Bluetooth technology, rely on a short-range radio frequency standard for voice and data transfer. Bluetooth is the main communications technology used in such PAN devices as local printers, personal digital assistants like Hewlett Packard's iPAQ, and mobile phones.

"I can link my BlackBerry with our office server and jot down things on my memo pad, put changes to my schedule while I'm on the road, synchronize documents and make changes automatically," said Al Prentice, vice president of management services at 1st Global, a Dallas-based broker/dealer. "I got rid of multiple devices, and since I don't always have to use my laptop, it's a real time-saver and very convenient."

HP is among those Wi-Fi device providers ridding CPAs of multiple devices. Recently partnered with Cingular, HP now offers the iPAQ Mobile Messenger, a phone and PDA in one. These multi-dimensional devices that include e-mail, instant messaging, cell phone service and optional cameras are becoming increasingly in-demand as the number of features and quality of service improves.

In addition to PAN services and devices, CPA and business consulting firms such as Vitale, Caturano & Co., Grant Thornton and Clark Nuber have made their offices Wi-Fi-enabled by installing LAN access points or hubs. "You don't have to worry about 100-foot-long cables anymore, so you can go into a conference call and still be hooked up," said Anthony Bonaguro, senior associate in assurance at national firm Grant Thornton. "I would say 99 percent of the people in the office use Wi-Fi, and it's so much easier - you can walk anywhere and be ready to pick up and go when you need to leave."

East side, west side

Municipalities in major U.S. cities, and even some smaller cities such as St. Cloud, Fla., are installing LAN access points to ensure that anyone in town can access the Internet.

In September, the city of Philadelphia announced a multi-million-dollar plan to provide the entire city with Wi-Fi access points; at the same time, Portland, Ore., also announced a plan to turn the city into a Wi-Fi hot spot. These two major cities will join such metropolises as San Francisco and Denver, as well as Miami Beach, that have already begun installing hubs in their cities.

Most laptops today are bought with the wireless cards for LANs already in place, but a new technology, WAN, has emerged and is being offered pre-installed in laptops as well.

Dell and HP have both formed partnerships with carrier Verizon to offer WAN cards built into their laptops. A WAN card picks up a signal in the same way that a laptop picks up a LAN signal in the office, only it can do it from further away from the access point. Where a LAN network can be accessed from about 300 feet away, a WAN signal can be picked up thousands of feet away.

"We have about 40 cards in the pool. It's useful for those who can't connect [at a client's office], because the client does not have wireless," said Richard Caturano, president and chief executive officer of Vitale Caturano. "We hope to have them installed firm-wide by the end of next year."

Toshiba, normally a hardware rather than a services provider, is "pretty soon going to offer WAN services," said program manager Raja Narayanan. Another service that Toshiba offers in the Wi-Fi field is the MyConnect program. The MyConnect Internet access program is a pay-as-you-go or a monthly unlimited service allowing Wi-Fi users to hook directly to the Internet in certain hot spots, rather than paying separate hot spot providers, such as T-Mobile, while waiting in an airport, or Starbucks while in their stores.

Widening the standards

However, David Cieslak, CPA and principal in the Encino, Calif.-based IT consulting firm Information Technology Group Inc., believes that Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, or WiMax, will be the next highly adopted wireless technology for accountants and general consumers alike.

"WiMax is going to be accessible from a five- to 30-mile distance and up to 20 megabytes at long distances. So WiMax is going to negate some of these cell phone companies setting up 3G networks [the most advanced WAN service available]. It's a very significant development."

WiMax is a standard that was ratified in June 2004 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., an organization headquartered in New York and a leading technical authority for such fields as computer engineering, biomedical technology and telecommunications.

WiMax is projected for use in metropolitan areas and offers a more efficient and reliable way of connecting large groups of people to the Internet than Wi-Fi. And unlike Wi-Fi, WiMax does not need a direct line of sight from the hub or access point in order to connect.

"This is 802.16 - not even the 802.11 standard (the normal Wi-Fi IEEE standard) anymore. Those standards have been signed off and we're starting to see products ready to run on WiMax," said Cieslak. "The standards have been set, and we're going to see a lot more about WiMax even in the next number of months. It's not just for laptops. It's for things like cell phones too, only using Voice over Internet Protocol instead."

Intel announced late last year that by the end of 2005 the Rosedale chip, a WiMax chip, would be ready for shipment in laptops. Cieslak forecasts that products utilizing WiMax technology will start to be adopted by consumers as early as 2006. Large wireless Internet standard protocol providers like TowerStream in major U.S. cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, and ISP providers in the overseas market have already begun building points of presence for WiMax services.

Hot spots ... for hackers

Yet both WiMax and Wi-Fi are open networks, and security must still be in place whether a city decides to turn it's downtown into a Wi-Fi hot spot or opts to invest in the newest Internet connectivity technology available.

"With wireless, everyone is saying, 'Everyone jump in the pool.' But wait ... everyone jump out of the pool," warned Cieslak. "When making a hook-up on wireless, they need to be careful. What are they doing so as not to potentially expose their log-in names or passwords or confidential information just to make a convenient hook-up?"

As long as patches are downloaded, anti-virus software updated and the unprotected shares on the Wi-Fi device are turned off, security should not be a source of any heart attacks with mobile CPAs, said Henley of Clark Nuber.

"There is this undeserved reputation that Wi-Fi is un-secure. The reason for that is, yes, when you bring a box home [a wireless router], it's not secure, but it's like if you walk into a room without turning the light on, you're going to bump your toe," said Henley. "You have to take some responsibility. Even some minimal security is going to keep out about 99 percent of the people trying to get in. Wireless security can be made just as secure as a wired network."

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