How to Be Mobile on the Cheap
By Nerino J. Petro, Jr.
One key to being a mobile lawyer is being able to take everything that you need with you while enjoying the same level of connectivity and productivity as if you were working at your office. Another key, especially for a solo or a small firm, is how to do this as inexpensively as possible. Wireless computing has reached the point that it is realistic and practical for the masses: myth and technology have actually caught up with one another.
Because lawyers depend more and more on email and Internet resources, wireless technology is a primary consideration in a mobile practice. Other questions you need to ask include:
- What wireless technologies do you need to become a mobile lawyer?
- Do you buy older technology, the newest cutting (or bleeding) edge technology, or try to strike a balance between the two?
- What equipment, software, and technologies must you have versus those you would like to have if money were no object?
How are you going to protect all of your priceless data from prying eyes or if your notebook computer is stolen?
There are multiple categories of wireless technologies such as 802.11x, Blue Tooth, and 2.5G and 3G, which play different roles. Let’s take a brief journey back in time to the early 90s when many experienced their first taste of wireless technology from the use of pagers and cell phones.
By the late 1990s, wireless technology was starting to appear that allowed for computer networking without wires. As with any early technology, it was expensive, wasn’t necessarily user friendly, and was manufacturer-specific (i.e., no mixing and matching of components). The first use was by big companies with IT departments. Because the radio frequencies available are limited, with the government (both civilian and military) taking up a big chunk of them and commercial radio and TV grabbing another piece, computer companies were pretty much limited to the 2.4 GHz band of the radio spectrum, which is also shared by such every day wonders as the cordless phone and microwave ovens. Throw into the mix lack of standardization and interoperability and, like so many petulant children, all of these devices didn’t always play well together. Using a cordless telephone could interfere with the proper operation of the wireless network. On top of all of this, there was the usual problem with competing standards (remember VHS vs. Betamax?). Fortunately for us, some sanity prevailed.
The IEEE ™ (pronounced Eye Triple E, the acronym for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) created the 802.11™ standard and ratifies the standards for wireless LAN technologies (http://standards.ieee.org/wireless/) including 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11a. The standards didn’t guarantee interoperability, so the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance® (WECA) was born to certify 802.11 interoperability.
802.11a, usually found in larger offices and businesses that require faster throughput, operated at a higher frequency of the radio spectrum not already used by everyday devices and therefore had less interference from other devices, but its range was limited. 802.11a has never caught on with the SOHO (Small Office Home Office) users.
802.11b, while slower, had greater range and was quicker to reach price points that made the technology affordable for SOHO users. 802.11b was the most common “flavor” of wireless technology found in public hot spots because of the lower cost of equipment and the greater range. 802.11b was also the first to ship, beating 802.11a by about a year. However, 802.11b has really become a legacy standard and should be avoided.
802.11g is the most popular standard that operates in the same 2.4GHz frequency range as 802.11b, but with throughput speeds matching 802.11a. The real benefit of 802.11g is that it is backward compatible with 802.11b hardware. Therefore, those who have an 802.11 b access point at home or wireless network card can access hot spots and networks using 802.11g technology. Of course, there has to be a “gotcha,” and it is this: once you add an 802.11b product into an 802.11g network, the whole wireless network operates at 802.11b speeds. Combination devices allowing for use of both 802.11a and 802.11g standards are also available, providing the greatest guarantee of interoperability.
The latest “flavor” of 802.11 wireless networking is the 802.11 Pre-N products. The IEEE is currently considering two different proposals for the formal 802.11n standard; however, this hasn’t stopped various manufacturers from moving ahead with their own concept of this standard. All of these products are known as Pre-N as there is no formal standard. This standard uses multiple wireless antennas to send information at the same time and also to receive the data. This is called MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) and this standard is designed to replace 802.11a, b and g. The draft standard failed to win the necessary votes for approval the last week of April 2006, so this technology should be avoided for the foreseeable future.
Bluetooth devices are confined to the same 2.4GHz radio spectrum as 802.11b and 802.11g, and is limited to a range of about 30 feet. 720 Kbps is the theoretical maximum throughput for this technology, which is faster than cellular 2.5G, but slower than 802.11. So what is Bluetooth intended to do? According to the Bluetooth® Official Website ( www.bluetooth.com):
Bluetooth® wireless technology revolutionizes the personal connectivity market by providing freedom from wired connections - enabling links between mobile computers, mobile phones, portable handheld devices, and connectivity to the Internet. Interface, synchronize, exchange? All of the above, and more. Bluetooth technology redefines the very way we experience connectivity.
Bluetooth was to be used for PANs (wireless Personal Area Networks) and to be a replacement for cables. Whereas Bluetooth wireless technology started out with much fanfare, its reality has not matched its expectations. So far, the widest adoption of Bluetooth technology has been wireless headsets for cell phones, but its use in other devices is slowly growing. A complete list of Bluetooth enabled products can be found at http://www.bluetooth.com/products/.
Older, but Cheaper or Cutting Edge Technology
The latest technologies are also the most expensive. Leave this for the “early adopters,” those people who have to have the latest technology irregardless of the cost. You also want to avoid the bargain or closeout aisles for technology that is several generations behind mainstream technology. Ideally, if this laptop isn’t going to be your primary computer, then you want to look at one or two generations behind the current cutting edge equipment. Rather than start by looking at the hardware first, focus instead on what software will be run and what other uses the computer will have. If all you want to do is basic word processing, sending email, and surfing the Internet, your equipment requirements will be less than someone who also wants to run a practice management system or other database, or use the laptop to do presentations and work on digital photos.
In the past, the only serious consideration for a CPU was Intel; but that’s no longer true. Within the past year, AMD has taken the technological lead in its chip design, giving the consumer more options when selecting a CPU. Although there are those who are loyal to only one brand, both companies offer CPUs that provide rock-solid performance suitable for a laptop computer. One caveat: both companies offer entry-level CPUs, the Intel Celeron and the AMD Sempron. Avoid both, as the costs savings are not enough to justify the performance loss you will experience.
The Intel Pentium M or Athlon Turion processors are the ideal choices for mobile computing as they have the ability to change computing speed depending on whether the computer is running on its battery or connected to a wall power outlet. This ability translates into extended run time when using batteries. You could also opt for the older Mobile Athlon 64.
To keep from breaking the bank, disregard the latest dual core (2 CPUs) laptops.
You will also need to decide the type of optical drive DVD, DVD + RW drive, or CD-RW; whether to have a separate video card or onboard video; how much memory (RAM) is needed; what size hard drive to get; and what operating system (OS) to use. Generally, the newer the drive, the larger the hard drive size, and the more video memory, the more expensive the laptop becomes. If you don’t want to record DVDs on your laptop, then you can opt for a DVD/CD-RW drive that will play DVDs and CD-ROMs, but also let you record CD-ROMs. This is one of those instances where it can be a hard choice; however, if it’s a choice between a DVD burner and a better video card and you are planning on using the laptop for digital imaging or other graphic intensive tasks, then opt for the better video card.
So what does all of this mean to the “average” attorney who wants to make their office portable, for as little money as possible? It means that the technology has matured to the point where: 1) it’s no longer cost prohibitive; 2) the hardware is widely available from a number of manufacturers and you can “mix and match” products within the same standards; 3) Current operating systems make installation and use much easier: Windows XP® includes wireless LAN “sniffer” capabilities (i.e., it will search for wireless networks if a wireless network card is installed); 4) Equipment manufacturers have simplified installation procedures and are providing more user friendly installation guides. You can now truly become a mobile lawyer if you want.
What will this require? Here’s my “must have” list of what it takes to be mobile on the cheap.Notebook Computer with Integrated Wireless Networking Capability
Modern notebook computers are coming equipped with wireless technology already built-in. Most now include 802.11b/g connectivity. If you’ve ever heard the Intel® commercials over the last few years, you would’ve heard about Centrino® technology and may have gotten the idea that Intel started the wireless revolution. What Centrino represents is a Pentium –M® CPU, either the Intel 855 chipset or Intel 915 Express chipset and Intel PRO/Wireless 802.11b, 802.11g or 802.11 abg network connection. The 802.11b/g allows backwards compatibility with the “b” standard but also lets you to take advantage of the “g” standard as well. It also will allow you to take advantage of WPA (WiFI Protected Access) security protocol to secure your home or office wireless network. Look for a Pentium M at 1.6 Ghz or faster, Mobile Athlon 64 at 2.2 Ghz or faster, or AMD Turion 64 at 1.8 Ghz or faster.
Many of today’s notebooks do not include what are called “legacy” ports (i.e. parallel printer port, serial port and ps/2 ports for keyboards and mice). If your notebook doesn’t have legacy ports, you will want to include a USB mini docking station or port replicator.
Cost estimates: $700–$1,200.00 Tip: Check deal sites such as www.gotapex.com or www.dealuniveristy.com.
Wireless Access Point
In order to use your wireless equipped notebook at work or at home, you will need a wireless access point (AP). This acts as a bridge between your existing wired network and your computers and other peripherals (such as printers) that are also equipped with wireless technology or are part of a wired network. These generally take the form of a wireless router that also includes a wired switch to connect other computers by cable. It also has a port to connect to your DSL or Cable Modem.
Cost Estimate: $39.99–$75.00 for DLink or Linksys home products
Touch pads are OK, but nothing can still replace a mouse for using Windows®. Kensington®, Logitech®, BenQ®, and Microsoft® all make wireless mice using wireless technologies allowing you to go “tailless.” For notebooks, Kensington and BenQ® (as well as others) make a miniature mouse that runs on AAA batteries and the wireless transmitter plugs into an available USB slot. When you’re not using the mouse, the transmitter fits into the bottom of the mouse and there is a switch shut it off saving battery life.
Cost Estimate: $23.00-$65.00. Check Sam’s Club for good prices on Logitech brand.
When you’re using a public hotspot, you’re working on a completely open network and the person at the next bench may be trying to get access to your computer without your knowing about it. Just as in the wired environment, you need to practice safe computing in the wireless world as well. A good firewall can block the bad guys from gaining access to your notebook and can also alert you to any such attempt as well. I have several software firewalls that I use, one is Zone Alarm Pro® from Zone Labs, Inc.® and the other is the Kerio™ Personal Firewal from Kerio Technologies, Inc., and I recommend that you get the commercial (pay) versions so you get all of the bells and whistles.
Cost Estimate: Around $40.00. Grisoft AVG Antivirus and Firewall is approximately $50.00
Another critical part of safe wireless computing. Preferably the program scans incoming and outgoing email, has real-time scanning and actively updates its virus definitions. Products such as Grisoft AVG®, Computer Associates e-Trust® and Norton Anti-Virus® are popular and effective.
Cost Estimate: $30.00–$50.00.
Loss and disclosure of confidential information is a constant threat with laptop computers. While you can use products that encrypt certain folders or files on your laptop, I prefer to encrypt the entire hard drive. With these types of products, someone else cannot get to the contents of the drive unless they enter the password before the boot sequence completes. SecureDoc encrypts the entire hard drive protecting all data on the drive even if someone else tries to attach it to another computer system.
Cost Estimate: $30.00
USB Flash Drive Headset for Your Cell Phone
The now ubiquitous thumb or pocket drive provides from 32MB to 4GB of storage for transferring files, backing up data or holding music files. It easily fits in your pocket—think of it as the modern day version of the old “sneaker” network using a 1.44Mb floppy disk, except a 1 GB USB Flash Drive holds as much as 694 floppy disks.
Cost Estimate: $25.00–$119.00
A headset can make using your cell phone much easier in a loud environment and can also increase your privacy level as well. Some states now require use of headsets while driving.
Cost Estimate: $10.00–$35.00
If your phone has Bluetooth wireless technology enabled, then by all means get one of the new Bluetooth enabled headsets. Manufacturers include Sony Ericsson, Motorola, and GN Netcomm (makers of the Jabra® line of headsets). You should also get a good wired headset you’re your phone isn’t Bluetooth enabled, you can opt for one of the wireless headsets from Logitech® which include a small transmitter.
Cost Estimate: $29.00–$129.00
If you plan to use public hot spots or work outside your office, it’s a good idea to get one of the many available cable locks to secure your notebook computer. Some are equipped with audible alarms and movement sensors as well.
Cost Estimate: $29.00–$49.00
A good case is important, but preferably one that doesn’t scream “notebook computer inside.” I often use a backpack. In any event, it should provide sufficient padding and means of securing the notebook to keep damage from occurring if the bag is knocked over or even dropped heavily. What is the best case to use is a truly subjective question that must be answered by each individual. It is not uncommon to find that it takes buying and using several different cases before you find the right case. Generally, you will want a wheeled case as it makes it easier to carry everything with you on trips. I use a Kensington Contour Roller, but you can also find good bags from Targus and Victorinox.
Cost Estimate: $29.00–$400.00
Connector and Cable Kit
You never know when you will need a modem, network, or USB cable. You can purchase a bunch of different cables, or you can buy a kit that provides adapters and retractable cables for multiple devices. Ultra® makes a 13 piece retractable cable kit for under $40.00 that includes:
1x 59" Firewire Cable
1x 50" RJ-11 Cable
1x 50" RJ-45 Cable
2x 59" USB AM/AF Cable
1x Mini 5-Pin USB Adapter
1x Mini 4 Pin USB Adapter
2x Firewire Adapters
1x USB Extender
1x USB A - USB Device Adapter
1x RJ-45 Cross-over Adapter
1x 60.5" Microphone / Headset
Cost Estimate: $39.00
Notebook computers are no less susceptible to power surges than a desktop computer when they are plugged into an electrical outlet. Get a mobile surge protector that can protect your notebook power supply at a minimum. Better is one that allows you to plug in at least two devices.
Cost Estimate: $15.00–$29.00.
Mini Docking Station/Port Replicator and Extra Power Supply
If you are going to use your notebook at the office or at home on a regular basis, purchase a port replicator or USB Mini Docking station to make connecting to the office or home network and peripherals easier. Then all you have to do is drop it on the port replicator or plug in a single USB cable, and you have access to networks, keyboards, printers, and scanners without having to connect all of them every time. If your notebook doesn’t have legacy ports, a USB mini docking station or a port replicator is a must have to allow you to connect a parallel printer, serial device, wired mouse, and keyboard and also usually includes a number of USB ports. Kensington® and Targus® make USB mini docking stations that are smaller than a paperback book.
Cost Estimate: $49.00–$100.00
Because you never know what conditions you will encounter, there will always be times when you will be very glad you are carrying a small power strip or Y-splitter Power Liberator ( http://www.cyberguys.com) and a USB travel fan with or without light.
Hot Spots Public Hotspots
Once you’ve assembled everything you need, you’ll need to be able to locate public hot spots. These may be provided by a commercial enterprise and charge a fee to connect or they may be provided free by a business or by a unit of government. Some national food chains are providing hot spots, as well as hotel chains and telephone companies. Many cities are also providing hot spots, including Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which provides free public access at Pere Marquette Park and Cathedral Square Park. The United States is ranked number one in countries for WiFi hotspots and Chicago, Illinois, is ranked number 4 in cities with more than 400 available, but the city that usually tops the lists is New York, New York, with more than 1,000 hot spots. Just one year ago, Chicago had a little more than 200 hotspots, and New York, around 600. A few of the many available websites you can use to locate hot spots are:
The last site, provided by www.cnet.com, is one of the best sites for this purpose that I’ve found.
Just as there are dangers in using the Internet from a wired network, these and more exist for the wireless world. Public hot spots are usually set up for ease of use, not security, and most won’t allow use of any security such as WEP® (Wired Equivalent Privacy) or WPA® (WiFi Protected Access). There is also the danger of eavesdropping on your system by other users of the hot spot or who are lurking at a hot spot looking for people who have not disabled their wireless card’s ad hoc mode allowing for peer-to-peer connections to their computer and also have file and print sharing enabled. When you log into your email account and send or receive email, unless you are using a VPN (Virtual Private network) or using web based email on a site that uses SSL (Secure Socket Layer—these sites are identified by https// in their URL) security, you are sending this data in the clear for anyone to intercept it. You’re also still vulnerable to all the usual dangers like a worm, virus, and spy ware.
So what do you need to do to be safe?
Home and Office
- Use your firewall and antivirus software and keep them updated.
- Consider using encryption for your email and digital signature or at least use web-based email on a site with SSL.
- Disable your wireless cards ad hoc option.
- Disable file and printer sharing.
- Disable your wireless card if you’re not working online.
- Be aware of anyone looking “over your shoulder” as you enter your passwords.
- Keep your OS updated with the latest patches and security updates.
- Consider using VPN software and a VPN endpoint if you have them.
- Don’t provide your credit card number unless the site is protected by Secure Socket Layer (SSL). These sites are identified by https// in their URL.
- When possible, use wireless security, even if it is only WEP.
Using wireless technology at your home or office also presents its own set of dangers as well. Failing to take precautions with your SOHO wireless network can lead to your becoming a victim of a practice commonly known as war driving. This is the practice of people literally driving around with a notebook computer, wireless network card, and software such as NetStumbler (which is free) looking for unsecured wireless networks. Run a search on your favorite Internet search engine for war driving, and you’ll be amazed at the information regarding this practice and available tools to do it. When 802.11b was introduced, it included WEP for encrypting the information between computers. Soon thereafter, ways to circumvent WEP were found, which for technologically adept persons, could be used to break the encryption and gain access to the network and its information. The Wi-Fi Alliance has now introduced WPA, which resolves the security issues found with WEP. Regardless, you are till better using WEP than not using it. Things you can do to minimize your risks include:
- Change the standard SSID and Administrator Password of your Router/Access Point.
- Enable WEP encryption for 802.11b (128 bit if possible). For 802.11g use WPA.
- Limit the number of machines that can access the network to the number you have.
- Disable SSID broadcast if possible
- Place the access point in the center of your building/office/home if possible—the closer to an outside wall that you place it, the further the range that someone can pick up a signal.
- Select infrastructure mode—this requires the use of the access point by each computer (vs. ad hoc, which allows computers to communicate directly) and set your notebook to not automatically connect to nonpreferred networks.
- Check the company website for the latest drivers and updates before starting.
- Limit access by specific MAC address.
- Consider disabling DHCP and assigning static IP addresses.
With the current state of technology, its ease of use, lower cost, and established interoperability standards, there is no reason to wait any longer. While there are dangers in wireless computing, as with most things in life, taking reasonable precautions can minimize or eliminate these dangers. The benefits that can be provided by taking your practice mobile far outweigh the disadvantages.
Reference sources for learning more.
Using Microsoft Windows XP Professional Bestseller Edition by Robert Cowart & Brian Knittel
Wireless Home Networking For Dummies by Danny Briere
Wireless Internet Access for Dummies by Carl Simmons
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wireless Computing and Networking by Paul Heltzel and David E. Chamberlain
Nerino Petro is the practice management advisor for the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Law Practice Management Assistance Program (LOMAP). He is a member of the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division Technology Committee and served on the ABA TECHSHOW Advisory Board – Tech University Track for 2005. He is also the Chair for the ISBA Committee on Legal Technology. He is a regular contributor to local, state and national publications and also provides information on legal technology, practice management, and items of interest to lawyers on his blawg at www.compujurist.com.