When Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), lauded Wi-Fi technology as “the most fundamental tech explosion” in a speech less than two months ago, no one thought twice about it. Of course, his audience was comprised of participants in the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) — a.k.a. “gadget fest,” where Wi-Fi has become a rallying cry in the fight against what Powell calls the “cable connection nightmare.”

While tech-savvy sophisticates regularly testify to the benefits of Wi-Fi, the technology is still somewhat novel to many jan/san executives. Short for wireless fidelity, Wi-Fi requires only a small, electronic “access point” that beams out an Internet (or intranet) frequency that can be used almost anywhere in a particular building (depending on its size).

Distributors might notice Wi-Fi being used in airports, hotel lobbies and coffee shops where patrons are invited to sit and tap away at their laptops without the need for a wired hook-up, cable or even a modem. As long as the computer has a Wi-Fi “card” plugged into it (usually around $40) and there’s an access point nearby, anyone can jump on the building’s frequency to access the Web.

That frequency is where terminology can start to become tricky for the Wi-Fi layman. All frequencies run on a variation of base frequency IEEE 802.11. This includes other frequency “protocols,” such as 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g.

“There are different flavors of frequency that provide varied Wi-Fi speed, but that’s not really a concern for most business owners,” says Steve Weber, information services manager for Coastwide Laboratories, a Portland, Ore.-based jan/san distributor and manufacturer that is leveraging Wi-Fi’s advantages.

“The best thing about it is that it’s very inexpensive, and you don’t have to put hard wiring throughout your building,” says Weber. “The access point is only about $100, and you only need one of those per facility.” Of Coastwide Laboratories’ 11 locations, four are now using Wi-Fi.

Room to Sell
Salespeople at Coastwide Laboratories continually sing the praises of Wi-Fi because it increases their freedom to move around the building — an important advantage, according to Weber.

“Wi-Fi has really unleashed our salespeople from their little cubicles and desks,” he says. “Now they’re able to take their laptops all around the building with them. It makes a big difference. For example, they can visit our literature center to get vendor brochures and other product information without leaving their critical information at their desks.”

In addition to logistic advantages, Weber believes that the salespeople function better when they’re not chained to their cubicles. “Salespeople are a different breed,” he says. “They need to move around a little bit because they need to be social. With Wi-Fi, they can move around and still get work done.”

In addition to making a work environment more conducive to sales-staff productivity, Wi-Fi provides flexibility for jan/san distributors who are ready to grow their internal operations, says Weber.

“As Coastwide has grown, we’ve had to add more people and more workstations,” he explains. “Before, everyone had to be tied to a specific workstation in order to be at a computer that could access our corporate network. Now, we’re not tied to those workstations, so it gives us more freedom when we’re finding the optimal location for our employees.”

Consider Security
Because each Wi-Fi access point allows anyone within a certain radius to access the corporate network, a formidable security plan must be put in place to protect any critical information.

“It’s just like talking on a wireless phone at your home,” says Weber. “If your neighbor happens to be using a phone with the same frequency, then he or she will be able to listen in on your phone conversations. We didn’t want someone sitting in our parking lot with a laptop to be able to get into our network, so we created an encryption program.”

One of the most prominent advocates for increased Wi-Fi security has been the Wi-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit international association formed in 1999 to certify interoperability — the practice of creating compatible technology regardless of manufacturer — of wireless networks based on IEEE frequencies.

In mid-2003, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced the certification of products using the latest Wi-Fi security specifications. However, those specifications aren’t scheduled to be available until April or May of 2004.

“The industry has to be responsible and meet the needs of those companies who are deploying these networks,” says Brian Grimm, a Wi-Fi Alliance spokesman.

In the meantime, Weber isn’t overly concerned with his company’s Wi-Fi security, but it’s always in the back of his mind. “I worry about it less since we got the encryption system. Even if someone was close to our building with a laptop, the signal would get scrambled unless they had the code word,” he says. “However, I do worry about it to an extent, because those encryption systems can be hacked by certain people. One good thing is that the encryption technology keeps improving — that, and our industry probably isn’t the No. 1 target of hackers.”

A Flexible Future
Weber sees nothing but increased possibilities for Wi-Fi in the jan/san industry. He points out that the technology is already available to access e-mail and the Internet via a cell phone, so the day will soon approach when more information can be passed in a similar way to laptops.

“Being able to make information accessible for employees, regardless of their location, is priceless,” he says. “In the future — maybe even in a year or two — I envision our salespeople being able to be on the road with their laptops and access our network without any wires or modems.”

That day is approaching faster than perhaps even Weber expects. In late February, Nokia and IBM announced the first product born of their year-old alliance, a new digital phone aimed at “mobile professionals such as sales and support staff.”

The product, called “The Brick,” will give traveling employees access to corporate e-mail and messaging, as well as other internal network information.

“It’s the first business phone that delivers on all the needs of a corporate customer, in one device,” says Imran Waheed, IBM’s European sales manager of wireless e-business.

“The world’s No. 1 in e-business services hooks up with the No. 1 in mobile devices — this tells me Nokia is serious about developing products for enterprises, which I wasn’t sure about before,” says analyst Andy Brown at international research group IDC, headquartered in Framingham, Mass.

Only time will tell if Wi-Fi can actually realize the far-reaching impact that FCC chairman Powell’s superlative statements portend. For now, a few jan/san distributors, like Coastwide Laboratories, have made wireless freedom a reality for their companies.




First Get Unwired, Then Get Wi-Fi News
Billed as “daily reporting on Wi-Fi and the whole IEEE 802.11 family of standards,” Wi-Fi Networking News is a Web blog worth keeping an eye on.

The site gives users access to the latest and most influential events in the world of Wi-Fi. What it lacks in interesting design and color, Wi-Fi Network News more than makes up for in potent content.

Get Ahead of the Technology Curve
The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) isn’t just for electrical engineers and designers. It’s for anyone who is interested in the world of consumer technology. Visit CEA to find out about technology standards, trends and innovations for seven different product categories: electronic accessories, audio, home networks and information technology, mobile electronics, TechHome, video and wireless communications.

The site is user friendly and packed with information. A calendar also lists technology events, such as CEA 2004 Winter Technology & Standards Forum, Webcasts and tech seminars.

Access the New SM Buyer’s Guide Online
You can find updated listings of manufacturers, wholesalers and product categories at cleanlink.com. Cleanlink also has timely commentary, archived articles and daily news from around the sanitary supply industry.