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Easy 802.11b Wireless for Small Businesses

by James Duncan Davidson

Lots of small businesses across the nation are providing wireless access for their customers. Coffee shops and neighborhood cafes come to mind quickly because they are places where people gather for a little while and might want to replace reading the paper with reading their email. But any business that is providing a place for their customers to gather, even a doctorís waiting room, can benefit from putting wireless technology into place. Imagine being able to get a bit of work done, or surf and find a second opinion, while you wait to see the doctor.

Letís use the easy coffee shop example. If I have my choice between two shops across from each other on a street, and I know one of them has wireless access that enables me to make sure that the meeting Iím about to catch a cab for is still on, you can easily guess which one I am going to for my mocha. Itís not even a question. And if I go there that one time a week when I need Internet access, itís likely that Iíll go there the other days of the week when I donít. People get into habits that way.

Now think about how this can level, or even tilt, the playing field to the advantage of a small business owner. If your coffee is just as good, or even better than, Starbucks, and your cafť is as comfortable, but you are offering wireless access, then you have created an edge for yourself.

The usefulness of wireless networks is not limited to people that happen to be toting their laptops. Wireless networking is finding its way into all sorts of devices. Some of my OíReilly Network comrades have been running around the last few conferences with Handspring Visors that have 802.11b cards stuck into them. As wireless becomes even more pervasive in the home with devices such as the Moxi, you can bet that people will carry more devices that seek out and use wireless networks.

What Youíll Need and How Much It Will Cost

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For a small business with a limited area to cover (a few thousand square feet), a wireless network can be set up for a few thousand dollarsó-and much less if you already have a laptop to configure the network with. Even if you have to buy a laptop, the startup cost is probably less than giving your walls a new coat of paint. Letís assume that you donít have anything and want to set up a system yourself. Youíll need the following items (weíre going to use Apple equipment as an example because itís easy to use and obtain):

For less than $1,600 you have all the equipment you need. Next up, youíll need to get some kind of connectivity so that your wireless customers will be able to reach the Internet. This is relatively easy to do. In California, where I live, you can get a business DSL line for $50 per month and no setup fee, if you agree to set up the equipment on the line yourself. Itís easy enough to do, so unless you are really phobic about setting things up, you probably donít have any startup cost for turning on the line. And, back to our coffee shop example, the monthly cost is less than what you'd pay to have the dishes washed each day. (Plus you have lots of bandwidth for personal use!)

To Charge or Not to Charge

One of the first questions a business owner needs to answer is ďWhy am I providing wireless access for my customers?Ē If the answer is to find a way to make a bit of money, then obviously, a charge is in order. However, given that it costs so little to provide wireless access, most businesses should probably look at providing this as an amenity for the customers, just as the furniture and the pictures on the wall are meant to be. It should be a perk that encourages customers to come back. Often these are referred to as "value-added" services.

As an example of how charging is probably not a good idea, let me use the Denver International Airport. The last time I flew United through DIA, I noticed that my laptop saw a wireless network in the terminal, but that I wasnít getting an IP address. I found out that if I wanted to pay for it, I could have access. And when I found out how much it cost, I didnít even want to hook up. It was very pricey. Iím sure that most of the cost of the network isnít in the access or the hardwareĖ-itís in the cost of having people there and trained to collect money and assign IP addresses.

If, however, DIA just put up the base stations (itíd need quite a few as it is a big place) and let people use it for free, it would incur a one-time cost for setting up the network and a monthly cost for the bandwidth, but it wouldnít have to pay anybody to collect money. In addition, DIA would have many business travelers who have a wireless-enabled laptop choosing Denver as their layover because they know they can check email there. Traffic through DIA might just increase, giving the airport more revenue and easily paying for the cost of the network.

How To Set Things Up

Comment on this articleDuncan has outlined one way to use 802.11b in the business space to provide additional value to customers. What are other business uses for this technology?
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Now that I have convinced you to set up a wireless network, hereís the ten-step process to set one up for your business:

1: Order the equipment.

Buying the equipment online from the Apple Store is a good idea. Itís quick and easy. Otherwise, your local computer store should have everything you need.

2: Order the DSL line.

To do this, go to your phone companyís Web site and click on the prominent ďOrder DSL NowĒ button. Every phone company now offers DSL for a percentage of its region. Most DSL providers offer significant discounts for doing a self-installation. Itís easy enough that you really should take them up on the offer.

3: Be patient.

It takes time for most phone companies to mobilize itself to get a DSL line put in. Nobody really knows why and maybe theyíll get better someday, but for the time being, expect to wait a few weeks.

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