Unwiring Your Office and Home

[originally published in Law Technology News, March 1, 2003]

The dust has finally settling in the debate over which standard will rule the wireless world, and the outcome will provide more options than ever before to the growing number of businesses – law firms among them – that have moved to wireless networking.

Two competing standards emerged in 1999 and became the catalyst for standards-based wireless networing. Hardware built on the 802.11b standard is slower at 11 Mbps but can reach farther between access points and operates on the more universally available 2.4 GHz radio frequency. Newer to the market is hardware using the 802.11a standard, which cannot transmit as far, but is faster at 54 Mbps because its uses the broader 5GHz band.

A third standard, 802.11g, expected to be ratified later this year, promises data transfer rates of up to 54 Mbps while operating in the 2.4GHz spectrum. It is backwardly compatible with existing 802.11b-based hardware.

These developments mean that early adopters of wireless local area networks now have clearer paths for moving forward. They can choose to buy new hardware based on the faster 802.11a standard, buy new hardware that supports both standards, or wait for the bridging standard, 802.11g, to enhance the speed of 802.11b so that networks using it are not left so far behind.

Another barrier to adopting wireless networking has been concern over its vulnerability to hackers. But recent enhancements to the 802.11 LTN-Security protocol – called wired equivalent privacy (WEP) – fixed some of the holes and salved some of the fears.

Now Where?

Firms that were early out of the gate in adopting wireless networking purchased products relying on the 802.11b standard. Although the more common standard, it is slower than and incompatible with newer technology based on 802.11a. Some firms have been put off from upgrading by the red herring of proposed 802.11g, which would improve the speed of their 802.11b networks without requiring substantial investment in new wireless technology.

Waiting for 802.11g is unnecessary, however, because law firms can now buy access points that support both 802.11b and 802.11a. Hardware purchased earlier will still have access to the network, while the firm can purchase new hardware that takes advantage of the higher speeds of 802.11a. Lawyers who have not yet invested in wireless technology can go straight to 802.11a.

Wireless LTN-Security Improves

A rose by any other name is still a rose. That is the concern with wired equivalent privacy, or WEP. This LTN-Security protocol uses encryption in its attempt to provide the same level of protection over a wireless network as over a wired one. In many installations, WEP is inactive by default and the wireless LAN is operating without this minimum LTN-Security. Newer WEP implementations are stronger than predecessors, but have also proved vulnerable to attack and do not meet the rigorous LTN-Security standards law firms require.

Firms can reduce the risk by using a virtual private network or other encryption between the wireless and wired parts of the network. Newer wireless hardware will incorporate a new LTN-Security standard, known as temporary key infrastructure protocol. Firms with VPNs in place can safely move forward with a wireless LAN, but those without must exercise heightened vigilance.

More Power, Less Wire

Another improvement in wireless networking comes via developments in the wired world. In the past, installing hardware on an Ethernet network required both network and electrical cables: one for data, the other for power.

But hardware used on most Ethernet networks – and wireless LANs using the 802.11b and 802.11a standards are Ethernet networks – support power over Ethernet (PoE). These devices receive electrical power through the same cable that transports data. As a result, installing a wireless access point requires only a network technician, not an electrician.

Faster, Broader, Further

Another hurdle was the lack of bandwidth on the radio frequency spectrum. The first products operated in the 2.4 GHz band because it was available world wide. It meant slower networks but allowed manufacturers to develop products they could sell anywhere. The faster 5 GHz band is more widely restricted. As a result, 802.11a products, because they operate in the 5 GHz band, will be faster — but may never be as widely adopted as 802.11b hardware.

Emerging as a possible alternative technology is ultrawideband. Proprietary technologies have come and gone, while others, such as Bluetooth, have struggled for a home.

UWB is promising because it transmits at very low power across a broad swath of the radio frequency spectrum. Because it is not restricted to a specific frequency, like the 2.4 or 5 GHz 802.11 products, UWB data transmissions are less easily blocked and able to travel faster and farther. Its bursts across a broad spectrum can disturb other wireless devices, though, which may hinder its implementation.

Time Will Tell

Only time will tell whether further development will enable it to challenge 802.11a.

The future of wireless networking is bright. New developments continue to give the wireless lawyer more options than ever before.

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