No Strings Attached:
Cutting the TechnoCord
with a Wireless
Law Practice

By Ross Kodner

 

 

Those frustrating cables—they’re everywhere! Intertwining and connecting seemingly plug-incompatible gadgets in our laptop cases; tangling purses and briefcases in a snakelike mass of plastic-encased cords; connecting Palms to PCs; going from headsets to cell phones; “conveniently” linking us to printers (when sometimes the cables weigh more than the laptop); stretching to scanners; retracting (or not) from telephones; coiling like a garden hose around the legs of our chairs while connecting us to a network. Arrgh! Enough!

It’s time to banish the cable headache once and for all. Wireless technology is the answer. It’s hard not to hear about the rise in wireless devices today. From network connections for our laptops and Palms to wireless earphones for our cell phones, wireless e-mail, wireless Internet “hot spots,” the practice of “warchalking” sidewalks to note wireless Internet access points in metro areas—we’re walking in a wireless wonderland, and just in the nick of time.

What kinds of wireless devices make sense for lawyers? Why, many pragmatic wireless devices and applications exist for lawyers and their staff, for firms of all sizes and for practices of all types. Several key wireless technologies recently have gone past being de rigueur and have morphed into “must haves.” What sort of setup makes sense for you? Different methods for wireless connections, including WiFi (otherwise known as “Wireless Ethernet”) and its short-range cohort, Bluetooth technology, have appealing features that may serve you well.

Wireless Networking
Most law firms with more than one PC have them networked together to share data, programs, and peripherals such as printers and backup systems. Traditionally, this network has involved some kind of interconnecting device (typically referred to as a “hub” or a “switch”) and cables to actually connect the device to the PCs. Firms that planned ahead and installed network cable outlets in many places throughout their offices have had the luxury of being able to sit and work, connected to their networks (and via them to the Internet) at any of these “cable points.” But what happens when one of the lawyers wants to sit in the library with laptop in hand and get work done, surf the Net, and so forth? How about the office’s kitchen area? What if there aren’t any cable points there? The localized nature of cable points has meant there has been no practical way to access from all points in an office the network documents, calendars, the Internet, or even e-mail. And that, today, just isn’t acceptable.

Switch gears and consider computing in your home. In more and more families all members have their own PCs. Add a speedy new cable modem to access the Internet and you end up with a chaotic logjam—everyone wants to access the Net at the same time. Spending hundreds, if not thousands, to run network cabling in an existing home is not an appealing option. In the interest of family harmony, if not just plain convenience, finding a way to wirelessly share printers and Internet connections becomes a necessity.

Wireless networking technology isn’t new. For a number of years there have been methods, usually oriented to home users, for connecting PCs without the need for a physical cable connection. Until relatively recently, however, none of these methods has been very workable or reliable . . . or affordable. With the advent of a new generation of wireless network technology, based on the virtually ubiquitous Ethernet system for connecting PCs and peripherals, a new era for wireless connectivity has dawned. Many predict that those leveraging some version of 802.11x wireless network technology (often referred to as WiFi) may eventually outnumber the corded set among us.

WiFi, currently available in several numerical flavors, is the most popular wireless networking technology. A cableless derivative of tried-and-true Ethernet network, it is now standard equipment in many laptops, some printers, some Palm-sized devices, and even some LCD projectors. The technology is successful because, well, it actually works. The most common form is called 802.11b. This system sends and receives information via a device called a wireless access point at 11 mbps (megabits per second: remember to divide by 8 to get “megabytes per second”) with some systems capable of “turbo” mode at double that speed. It is mostly like that if you purchased a laptop in the last 18 months that has wireless capability, it follows the 802.11b transmission standard. Practical operating ranges extend to about 1,000 feet under perfect conditions, but actually more like 200 feet inside a building—more than adequate to take one’s laptop outside onto the deck at home or into the office’s conference rooms.

A wireless access point is a small box that connects to your existing network. It adds the whole network to communicate wirelessly with the wireless-equipped devices on your network. Some wireless access points, often designed for home use, also incorporate a router to allow shared access to a cable modem or DSL Internet connection and often standard network hub capabilities to interconnect cabled network components. They sometimes include Internet firewall capabilities as well: consider them the multifunction devices of the networking world. Popular makers include Linksys, D-Link, U.S. Robotics, Netgear, Orinoco (Lucent Technologies), Cisco, 3COM, and even Microsoft. Typically, a wireless access point/cable and DSL router/network hub will cost between $90 and $200 for home-oriented units to as much as several thousand for high-capacity, high-security units intended for larger offices.

The next piece of the puzzle is the wireless “card”—the component either built into a PC or printer, or added to one that communicates with the wireless access point. More and more laptops, and even several higher-end Palm-sized devices, have wireless capability (generally following the 802.11b standard) built-in. If not, a wireless PC card can be added to a laptop for between $50 and $150. For desktop PCs, the options are internal PCI cards or external USB wireless adapters, which cost between $50 and $125. It is also possible to connect non-PCs wirelessly—devices with Ethernet networkability such as printers, some scanners, and yes, even the new “Internet-enabled refrigerators.” This is done with a device called a “wireless bridge,” offered for about $100 by companies such as Linksys.

Security is always an issue with a network, so it is even more so when all those bits and bytes float through the air. The 802.11b standard uses a security system called WEP (wired equivalent privacy). Unfortunately, this method hasn’t lived up to its acronym and has been proven to be penetrable. Even though WEP has been proven only somewhat effective at securing wireless network transmissions, it is still far better to turn it on than not. Also, every wireless network has a special identifier called an SSID. This is essentially an identifying code that is exchanged between the wireless access point and PCs trying to connect with it. It is critical to reset the SSID on a new wireless access point (and on the PCs connecting to it) to something other than the default setting. At a minimum, this can prevent unauthorized wireless-equipped users from “leveraging” your wireless network connections.

The newer 802.11g systems employ far more sophisticated security capabilities— think of it as having WEP on steroids. While some clever hacker may someday demonstrate that the security of the “g” system can be broken, it hasn’t happened yet. This, along with connection speeds nearly fives times faster, is a compelling reason to invest in a “g” system.

The future of WiFi? More and more companies are embedding WiFi capability into an ever-widening array of devices. Wireless access points in public locations are multiplying rapidly. Hotels are exploiting 802.11b technology to create wireless zones in their properties, which is much less costly than offering high-speed Internet access to guests by installing physical cabling to every guest room. Companies like Wayport are leading the charge in hotels. Many Starbucks locations around the country are offering T-Mobile’s version of 802.11b access, with online charges offered daily or by monthly subscription. Services like Boingo ( www.boingo.com) offer a flavor of 802.11b at hundreds of access locations nationwide. Laptop maker Toshiba is teaming up with Circle K convenience stores to offer wireless zones. (Hmmm . . . high-speed Net access, a tank full of unleaded premium, and Twinkies: why does that combination seem so dangerous?) Expect to see more and more 802.11b access points nationwide.

A Long View on a Short Approach
WiFi is not the only wireless system for connecting electronic gizmos. A standard called Bluetooth has been in the offing for years and is now coming to fruition. Bluetooth is a short-range transmission system intended for interconnecting personal devices into what some have referred to as a PAN (personal area network). Examples of Bluetooth capabilities include cordless communication between an earphone/headset and a cell phone. Or how about a cell phone and a PDA that “talk” to each other when they’re in range and automatically synchronize their contact lists? Consider a Bluetooth-enabled PDA that can print its content to a Bluetooth-equipped laser printer. Bluetooth devices have an effective transmission range of about 30 feet. Future possibilities could include capabilities that would synchronize a PDA’s street map software to a future Bluetooth-equipped car’s in-dash navigation system.

Another short-range wireless connection approach is infrared (IR) technology. Familiar to many as the system that makes your TV’s remote control work, the technology has been available in PCs for some time. Most PDAs have an infrared system. This can be used to beam information between PDAs or to connect PDA and PC, sans cables, to synchronize their information. Some printers also have IR capability, allowing an IR-equipped laptop or PDA to print without a bulky parallel cable or USB connection. Very convenient to be sure, but it is also very short range, and it requires a direct line of sight between connected device, unlike Bluetooth and WiFi, which are radio frequency transmission systems with no direct line of sight required.

The Wireless Net
Let’s take wireless a step further into the realm of portable Internet Web and e-mail access. While the capability of cell-like Net arrangements, as well as paging systems, has been available for quite some time, we are just now seeing fast enough speeds to make the effort worthwhile. Using the platform of 2.5G and 3G cell transmission systems, companies like Verizon are offering relatively high-speed wireless Internet access in a growing number of metro areas around the country. This access really does work and uses a PC card with an antenna. However, it requires another monthly fee, and the coverage areas are currently limited. Expect this approach, with its staggering costly infrastructure, to likely lose out to much more economical wireless WiFi access points in many public locations. But if you need an often-on Internet connection, these systems are worth exploring.

Devices that look either like traditional alphanumeric pagers or like PDAs have become very popular. The most popular items in this category are made by RIM Technologies and use a thumb board to enter text (you type with your thumbs—although it sounds silly, it’s possible to quickly become quite speedy). The name “Blackberry” has become synonymous with these devices that send and receive Internet e-mail and can provide PDA-like functions. Blackberry is one of the software systems used by the RIM e-pager devices ( www.blackberry.net). Costs range from $300 to $600 for the devices with monthly service fees from $20–$60. A Blackberry competitor of note is the product from Good Technology with service offered by Cingular Wireless. This product is worth a look for its cradle-free real-time synchronization with firms using Microsoft Outlook and Exchange Server software ( www.good.com).

So whether WiFi, Bluetooth, or Infrared, or Wireless Net or the Blackberry e-pager approach, the future of wireless technology is not only bright, but also growing explosively. The lure of a cordless world is one that few can resist and one that all well-connected lawyers should explore.


Ross Kodner, a lawyer, is the founder of MicroLaw, Inc., a legal technology consultancy. He is a member of the GP/Solo Technology & Practice Guide Editorial Board and can be reached at rkodner@microlaw.com.
 

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