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ISSUE 592: Zisman- Feb 27 2001

The high-tech office


Wireless connectivity better with Airconnect technology

In the classic 1967 movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman's character received one word of advice: "Plastic." In a fantasy remake set right now, that word might be "Wireless."

The power of plastic is its ability to be molded into limitless shapes and forms. Similarly, wireless has a seemingly infinite range of contexts. There are the ubiquitous cell phones and pagers, now often extended to add Internet e-mail and limited Web browsing. I date myself by remembering an age when phones were connected by wire while TV signals came over the airwaves.

There's the not-quite-here-yet technology, Bluetooth, promising to connect all sorts of small devices over short distances. There's untethered Internet connectivity for notebooks and handheld computers, perhaps using hardware from Richmond's Sierra Wireless and software from Burnaby's Infowave.

And, increasingly, there's the ability to connect computers to home and office networks, bypassing the limitations of standard Ethernet cabling. This technology first came to broad public awareness when Apple added its Airport wireless capability to its popularly priced iBook notebooks and then went on to extend it to the rest of its product line.

In this space last fall, we've looked at Intel's Anypoint product line, offering exceptionally easy setup in bringing affordable wireless networking to home and small business PCs.

Both of those products work well, but neither offers what many companies are looking for. Apple's Airport, no surprise, is available for Macs only, while Anypoint doesn't offer the speed or flexibility needed to take part in a larger business's network.

3Com's Airconnect aims to fill that gap. Like Apple's Airport (and unlike Intel's Anypoint), it is based on what's becoming the standard for business-oriented wireless networking, IEEE 802.11b (catchy name, that). It promises Ethernet-like 11 Mbps (megabits per second) connections over a range of up to 100 metres. Inevitably, real-world speeds will be lower and the technology is designed to ramp back in speed as signal-strength drops.

The Airconnect access point acts as a bridge between the corporate network and up to 63 PCs, notebooks equipped with PC Cards or desktops with an Airconnect PCI adapter or other companies' 802.11b adapters. Up to three access points can be used simultaneously, to connect to up to 189 users.

The access points each need AC power and an Ethernet connection to the existing network. A nice feature, however, is the small powerbase-T module, shipped with the access point. This can be set up in the wiring closet, sending both the network signal and electric power to the access point over a single, standard network cable. This makes it possible to situate the access point almost anywhere without needing a nearby power outlet.

The software package has some equally useful features. A site survey tool can be used to help determine a location for the access point that will provide optimum coverage. Client software for the connected is easy to install on Windows 95/98, NT and Windows 2000 computers. The mobile connection manager utilities include a diagnostic tool that can be used to measure signal strength as the user moves from place to place, along with power management tools to help conserve battery power. If a user moves to different locations, the location manager transparently connects to different access. Users can change profiles to take advantage of different network resources, such as printers, in their new location.

We've all heard stories of cell phone conversations being overheard, with sometimes embarrassing results. Airconnect offers optional "wired equivalency privacy," to encrypt data flowing across the airwaves.

Pricing is $2,699 for a starter kit including an access point and 3 PC cards, $329 per additional PC card and $1,799 for a stand-alone access point.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan