The thought of wireless networking elicits a variety of reactions from business execs.

For some, the potential of security breaches and limitless technological expenses brings about a splitting headache. For others, pulses quicken at the thought of ordering office supplies from the treadmill or video conferencing with a branch office from the back seat of a taxi.

The reality of wireless networks is somewhere in between those two extremes. Wireless local area networks, or WLANs, are just like a company's Ethernet, only instead of physically connecting each computer to a cable, they use 802.11b radio wave technology to transfer data.

“I'm not so sure (the future) is with people walking around with a laptop,” said Kurt Scherf, vice president of research for Parks Associates, Dallas. “I kind of smile when I think about that.”

“Think about putting a desktop computer where you didn't have to stretch an Ethernet cable across the floor to run it,” he said. “I think flexibility plays a large part in it.”

Scherf's reality check on the capability of wireless networks grants that lunchrooms and lobbies can become mobile offices. But experts note that the range of a WLAN rarely extends very far outside the front door, and that the technology is not up to speed with hard-wired networks.

On the other hand, there are some unfounded criticisms of WLANs. Anthony Armenta, executive director of the Wireless Local Area Network Association (WLANA), San Jose, Calif., said many security breaches are the result of insecure networks.

“It's very easy to set up an insecure network,” Armenta said.

He urges companies to use the security features typically provided in the network's installation software.

“That will provide enough security to prevent just casual hacking,” he added.

WLANs use wifi (wireless fidelity) technology that only involves a few major components. Each computer has a network interface card (NIC) that allows it to remotely communicate with a network of access points. As computing devices move throughout a building or campus, the signal jumps from access point to access point but always stays connected.

Areas saturated with access points are referred to as “hot spots” where anyone who strolls through the area can gain access, given the right security clearance. The range of a wireless network is only limited to the placement of access points in a given area.

Although unintended users can sometimes gain access to private WLANs, Armenta said the security level of larger WLAN providers is similar to that of traditional LANs.

The fear of exorbitant WLAN costs is rooted in the technology's limited availability a few years ago, said Scherf.

“Back in 1998, pretty much everybody was of the same mind: Wireless technology is really great, but it's awfully expensive and it's going to remain in the enterprise and the corporate setting for a while,” he said. “I think people were very surprised at how quickly the volume came up and prices came down. You started to see a trickle down into some other areas.”

In addition, WLANs can offer cost savings when it is prohibitively expensive to tear up and rewire an old building. Armenta said that consumer versions of wireless access points now sell for less than $200 and network interface cards are well under $100.

This technology is becoming popular in hotels and airports, aimed at giving business travelers a work station away from the office. Corporate campuses are also adopting this technology at an even higher rate, according to Armenta.

“I think the benefits might run across all campuses,” Scherf said. “You're looking at reduction of clutter in terms of wire. If it's a dynamic office, or if there's a lot of turnover and offices are constantly getting moved, it may make sense to look at a wireless network.”

Depending on what kinds of applications on-the-move employees are using, a wireless network may or may not be right for them. The speed of WLAN access is still many times slower than high-speed Ethernet connections. As a result, applications like video streaming can be hindered somewhat with WLANs.

But, one doesn't have to choose between wireless and hard-wired networks — nor do datacom distributors need to worry about customers abandoning them for 802.11b technology.

“In a lot of cases, you're not going to see complete replacement of current Ethernet networks in these offices or campus settings,” Scherf said. “I think wireless is a real complement to Ethernet. You've got high bandwidth, high security, high reliability with the Ethernet. But you can also add wireless at a much lower cost than just a few years ago.”

Scherf expects most new houses will be built for years to come with a wired backbone.

Although WLANs are an amenity that may not be necessary for everyone, taking advantage of them is becoming an unconscious process because operating systems such as Microsoft Windows XP is designed to seek out wireless hotspots.

The presence of WLANs may start to determine where business travelers stay, and how much work they get accomplished. Emily Callahan, a spokesperson for WLAN provider Waveport Inc., Austin, said WLANs are a competitive advantage for hotels. Waveport has wired 450 hotels across the country with a hybrid, hard-wired, WLAN solution and set up WLANs in four airports.

“Certainly there are a lot of wireless users out there, but there are a lot of people who are just not yet up to speed so they're going to want wired access in their guest rooms,” Callahan said, explaining Waveport's two-pronged approach.

“Hotels are realizing that their business travelers want to have this amenity and they're booking their stay based on whether or not they have this type of access. People simply need to be productive on the road,” Callahan said.

The WLANA Web site, at www.wlana.org, contains a search function allowing wireless users to locate hot spots all over the country.