Computers: Cutting the Cord

Wireless networking offers EHS professionals convenient high-speed Internet access on the road, and avenues for improved productivity.

Wireless networks have definite advantages. Wireless technology eliminates the cost and inconvenience of installing network cables throughout a building. Wireless also provides users the freedom of mobile information access, opening up new applications that increase quality and productivity.

Wireless networking has a long history. The first wireless data network, ALOHANET, connected seven computers on four Hawaiian islands in 1970 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ALOHAnet). But the high costs of early wireless technologies limited wireless network growth.

The 1990s saw major improvements in two wireless network technologies Wide Area Networks (WANs) and Wireless Local Area Networks (wireless LANs or WLANs). One major difference between the two is the range of the wireless signal. A WAN signal, based on digital cellular telephone technology, travels for miles. Access is available wherever there is cellular phone service.

A WLAN Wireless Access Point (WAP) covers a small circular "hot spot" only 300 to 500 feet in diameter. However, additional WAPs and repeaters can extend coverage to a much larger area.

There are other key differences.

  • Wireless LAN hardware operates at broadband speeds ( 11 to 54 Mbps). WANS operate at modem speeds of 50 to 100 Kbps.
  • The price of admission is controlled by the network owner. WAN networks, owned by cellular communications companies, charge for access by the minute. There are no per minute connection costs when you own a WAP connected to your network.

Wireless LANs became cost competitive for university and corporate networks in the 1990s. Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health found that installing wireless LANs in a classroom cost over 80 percent less than a conventional wired network (wireless.jhsph.edu).

WLANs also improve quality and productivity. Wireless access to medical records and other information improves patient care, while reducing costs (www.wireless-nets.com/articles/whitepaper_applications.htm).

Wireless LANS are growing by leaps and bounds, thanks to low cost Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) technology. Wi-Fi is standard in many laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs). Wireless access is becoming commonplace in airports, hotels, convention centers and even coffee shops.

Communities are building open Wi-Fi networks to provide free wireless Internet access. New York City Wireless (www.nycwireless.net) is the largest and most publicized initiative.

What does this mean for safety, health and environmental professionals? First, a Wi-Fi-capable notebook computer or PDA gives road warriors convenient high-speed Internet access. My Palm Tungsten C and a Wi-Fi hotspot gives me broadband network access to the CDC, NIOSH, OSHA and EPA Web sites. I can even set up a Virtual Private Network to access files on an office computer.

Second, wireless networking will bring quality and productivity improvements. This year, Spiramid (www.spiramid.com) integrated wireless PDAs with their Health and Safety Suite. A web-based application, Spiramid's Suite, eliminates the need to install special software on the wireless device. The modules are accessible to any wireless-enabled computer or PDA with Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser.

"Conventional PDA use requires a lot of steps and time to download software updates and synchronize data," states Spiramid's Dave Risi. "Health and Safety Suite enables EHS Professionals to just focus on their work."

The wireless connection improves data integrity and availability, according to Risi. "Data is entered directly into the company's database, with real time data entry alerts and notifications from the company database. And the data is immediately available to other users."

Many software developers follow the market, writing their software to run on Microsoft's proprietary browser technology. I'm happy to report that Spiramid's Suite runs on any any browser that supports Java Server Pages technology. Following open standards means that Spiramid software can run on any Windows, Apple Macintosh, or Linux computer.

There's Never Been a Better Time to Cut the Cord

I upgraded my own home office network to Wi-Fi this summer. My goal was to provide wireless Internet access for a laptop computer and my Palm Tungsten C.

The upgrade couldn't have been easier. I replaced my old router with a Linksys Wi-Fi router, plugged my computer room computers and print server into the router's wired network ports, and installed a PCMCIA wireless network card in the laptop.

Everything just worked. In fact, Wi-Fi is so simple that my technology-challenged daughter installed a wireless broadband router in her college apartment.

There's only one disappointment. I thought my WLAN would let me cruise the Internet lounging in my backyard. I was wrong. The problem's probably from magnetic field interference since my wireless router sits atop a small television next to my 19-inch computer monitor. I'll have to add a repeater or amplifier to surf outdoors.

The Dark Side

Like the police officer, a Wi-Fi hot spot might not be available when you need one. If you need wider wireless access, consider a wireless cellular subscription. Cellular providers such as Verizon (www.verizonwireless.com) and T-Mobile (www.t-mobile.com) offer wireless Internet modems for laptop computers and PDAs.

Wi-Fi networks bring unique security concerns. Your wireless network is available to anyone with a wireless device within the range of your signal. Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to protect your network:

  • A wireless device cannot access your WLAN unless it knows your Service Set Identifier (SSID). Change your WLAN's default SSID to something unique. Create an acronym from a simple sentence "Mary had a little lamb" becomes MHALL for your SSID.
  • Turn broadcast off. With broadcast active, your wireless access point is constantly sending a message "My SSID is MHALL, please connect with me." With broadcast turned off, someone has to know that your SSID is MHALL.
  • Use Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). WPA provides improved encryption security over the older Wireless Equivalent Privacy (WEP) standard.

One last tip. Don't be like my brother. Make sure at least one computer is hard-wired to your wireless router. Router software and configuration options are accessed using a Web browser. If something goes wrong with your WAP, a wired connection allows you to access your router's configuration software.

More Wireless Information

The Web is a great source of information on wireless networking.

Geek Stocking Stuffers

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanza. Here are a few gift ideas for the geek in your life.

USB Drive. The greatest thing to happen to sneakernet since the floppy disk. About the size of your thumb, a USB drive plugs into a computer's USB port where it's recognized as a removable drive. My 128 megabyte thumb drive was under $50 and eliminated the need to burn CDs to carry files between home and office.

USB Hub. With a Palm Pilot, USB drive, digital camera and other USB devices, it's easy to run out of USB ports. For as little as $20, a hub will turn one USB port into four. Buy one that comes with an AC adapter so the hub can handle large USB drives and PDA docking stations.

A PDA Encyclopedia. The PalmOS Britannica Concise Encyclopedia card (www.palmone.com) and World Book WinCE encyclopedia (www.handango.com) put a world of information in your pocket. VSF Backup (homepage.ntlworld.com/james.screech). This backup software has saved my bacon more than once. The best $10 I've ever spent for my Palm Pilot. Don't leave home without it.

Contributing Editor Michael Blotzer, MS, CIH, CSP, is an occupational hygiene and safety professional, writer and computer enthusiast who brakes for animals on the information superhighway. Blotzer can be reached by mail addressed to Occupational Hazards, by fax at (309) 273-5493, or by electronic mail at [email protected]

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