wirelessI remember when networking your computers meant running cables, usually coax or Ethernet (any other old folks around who recall ArcNet and Token Ring?). In the very early days, “computer rooms” had built-up floors with a mess of cords and cables running underneath them.  A little later, if you wanted to do it right (and had the money), you ran them through the attic or plenum and did drops down into the walls. If you weren’t so exacting, were broke, or just wanted a temporary connection, you would string them around the edges of the room, fastening them to the baseboards. One way or another, you needed a wire for those signals to travel on.

Then along came Wi-Fi and computers no longer had to be tethered to a fixed location. The ability of computers to communicate over the airwaves opened up the way to today’s world of mobile computing. Wireless networking allows you to place desktop systems in parts of a building where they couldn’t go before and lets laptops, tablets and smart phones roam freely without losing their connections to the local network (and through it, to the Internet).

In its infancy, though, wireless equipment was slow, a little flaky and not very secure. Transferring large files over Wi-Fi was a painful and often frustrating process. Dropped signals were common and the encryption protocols were easy to crack. But like all new technologies, it steadily improved, to the point where it has become the standard for home networking. I remember being surprised, several years ago, to hear a popular host of a call-in “tech talk” radio show tell a listener he shouldn’t bother to put Ethernet in the walls of the new home he was building, because “wireless is easier.”

That advice wouldn’t surprise me at all today. The vast majority of home computers are portable devices, not desktop towers. They move from room to room, outside onto the patio, and even go to work with their owners. In fact, it’s now a bit of a surprise to hear that someone – or some company – doesn’t have a Wi-Fi-based local network. Are businesses that still run all their network traffic over cables just hopelessly old fashioned, or are there some good reasons to stick with wired connections?

Wireless security is much better than it once was; however, organizations that deal in super-sensitive data may choose to use only the most secure type of connection – and that’s a wired connection. When data travels across the airwaves, it can sometimes be intercepted in transit using a long range antenna from a nearby location such as a parking lot or building across the street. When it travels across cables, a data thief would have to get physical access to those wires and tap into them, which is much more difficult. This risk can be ameliorated by encrypting the Wi-Fi connection with a strong encryption protocol such as WPA2. It’s also possible to use materials in the walls and windows that block Wi-Fi transmissions so that they don’t “leak” outside your building.

A common security issue with Wi-Fi is that visitors to your premises may want to connect their own personal devices to your network in order to use your Internet connection. If your wi-fi network isn’t configured correctly, this could give them access to systems and files on your local network, as well. Of course, this would also be an issue if they plugged into your network via Ethernet cable; it’s just that they’re less likely to do that (especially since tablets, smart phones and even some of the newest laptops don’t have Ethernet ports). Whether wired or wireless, however, the best strategy if you want to give guests Internet access is to set up a completely separate guest network for them that isn’t connected to the local network at all.

Then there is the reliability issue. Just as you can deliberately block the transmission of radio signals, they are sometimes blocked unintentionally by materials used in construction of a building, or the wireless access point’s signal isn’t strong enough to reach throughout the entire building, with the result that you may have “dead zones” where devices can’t connect to the wireless network. However, weak signals can be boosted with repeaters.

Interference from other devices and equipment that operate at the same frequency can cause your Wi-Fi signal to drop or reduce performance, too. 802.11g transmits on the 2.4 GHz band, 802.11n on either the 2.4 or 5 GHz band, and 802.11ac on the 5 GHz band. Microwave ovens, cordless phones, garage door openers, car alarms, Bluetooth devices and others work over the 2.4 GHz wavelength and can interfere with Wi-Fi network transmissions that use that band. The 5 GHz band is less cluttered and is divided into more channels but some devices, such as radar and some medical devices, operate on this frequency. Dual band routers can automatically switch to the band that’s currently less congested.

Speed is less of a problem now than it once was, although Ethernet still stays way ahead in performance. Most devices now are equipped with 802.11n network adapters, which can provide theoretical speeds of up to 600 Mbps (depending on the WAP/router). That’s still a good deal slower than gigabit Ethernet (1000 Mbps), but it’s fast enough for most purposes. And the latest Wi-Fi technology, 802.11ac, can theoretically transmit at gigabit speeds.

The 802.11ac standard was just finally approved in January 2014, though, so many current computers and devices don’t come with the faster adapters yet. How much the speed difference matters depends on what you want to do. If you’re mostly downloading from the Internet, you may be limited by your Internet connection (unless you have a fast fiber-based package such as FiOS or a high speed cable plan). When transferring files between computers over the local network, you’re more likely to see the improvement with Ethernet – but only when copying or moving very large files. The higher speed and better reliability of a wired connection can also be important when you’re streaming live video or engaging in other high-bandwidth activities.

Obviously then, there are some good reasons for companies to continue to use Ethernet instead of going wireless. On the other hand, if you’re deploying a new network, cost can be an important factor that makes Wi-Fi a more attractive option. Many laptop and desktop computers come with both Ethernet and wireless network adapters built in, and Ethernet hardware and cables are not very expensive, but the cost for installation of cabling in a building after the walls have been closed up can be high. Setting up a wireless network or adding devices to it will usually be substantially easier than on a wired network.

However, we shouldn’t treat the wireless vs. wired question as if it’s an either/or decision. It seems that the future of networking is about hybrid everything, and the best solution for most businesses may very well be to combine wired and wireless technologies, providing the extra security and speed for some systems when the data and applications need it, and also having a wireless network that connects to the wired LAN for the portable devices that move into, out of and around your premises. That way, you get the best of both worlds and can make a gradual transition from wired to wireless networking in the most painless way possible.