From the October 2006 issue of Wealth Manager Web • Subscribe!

October 1, 2006

Unplug Yourself

You don't have to be thrown by odd terminology or science-fiction claims from product manufacturers. With some quick research, you can now better use your cell phone, laptop or PDA--without wires.

First there's WiFi, the term generally attributed to wireless networking via "hot spots," or areas where there are active wireless connections. Because WiFi's range is 100 to 300 feet from the main source, you need to have a hot spot within 100 to 300 feet from where you're sitting in order to get connectivity for your WiFi-enabled laptop.

Wireless networking has four levels: 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11n which is in draft form with products being shipped. "These technologies are used for data transfer and overall connectivity of the network. Each new standard improves the transfer rate and the distance or range of connectivity," says Michael Scott, technical media manager at D-Link Systems, Inc., a supplier of wireless equipment.

Then there's Bluetooth, technology that allows devices (within about 30 feet of each other) to communicate without using USB cables. "Bluetooth is a shortwave technology used more in a personal area network for connecting a PDA to your desktop PC or your laptop," Scott says. Bluetooth offers easy synching of a user's contacts from cell phones or PDAs to their PCs.

"[Bluetooth] is very consumer friendly, very easy to implement, at a very low cost," says David Hoff, mobility and wireless practice manager for Optimus Solutions, a systems integrator.

Bluetooth wireless headsets are what free you from being wired to your cell phone, a real benefit when driving. Since there is some overlap between what Bluetooth and WiFi provide, "It's not uncommon to see PDAs and some smart phones out there incorporate both," Hoff says. "WiFi uses considerably more battery; in a PDA or smart phone that tends to be a big deal if your battery life goes from four hours down to an hour when WiFi is turned on."

WiFi was originally developed without embedded security mechanisms. It now has security through the use of WPA and WPA2 encryption technology. "Advisors would want to use a hot spot that uses WPA or WPA2 because they are going to be working with sensitive information," Scott points out. "Bluetooth, which isn't really used in a hot spot, but rather for hands-free operation while driving, does not require the security needed in a wireless office environment," he adds.

Highly mobile people have special options, such as 1x Evolution-Data Optimized (EV-DO) and High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA). EV-DO--a card you slide into the side of your laptop--offers higher security and unlimited internet access anywhere there's coverage.

If you're planning to meet a client in another city, you can find a convenient WiFi hot spot for the appointment by checking out JiWire.com on the Internet for lists of available hot spots in any location around the world.

Hot spots also enable advisors to use Web-based planning tools like Yahoo Finance or First Column inside their laptops. "If they're talking about specific stocks or properties, and they want to show the client the latest performance of those equity investments, they can easily go to something like Yahoo Finance live in the coffee shop," or wherever they're meeting, says Derek Kerton, principal analyst at The Kerton Group, a firm that offers consulting services in wireless strategy. Kerton recommends that you install firewall software, such as the free ZoneAlarm, on your computer and use VPN software to connect to your home office.

Mobility plus security make wireless computing and communicating hard to beat.

A Wireless Glossary

o WiFi: abbreviation for "Wireless fidelity," technology that connects laptops, PDAs, etc to networks without wires

o WLANs: wireless local area networks

o Bluetooth: type of wireless technology that allows digital devices to easily transfer files at high speed; common in portable devices such as laptops, PDAs and cell phones

o USB: Universal Serial Bus, a hardware interface widely used for attaching peripheral devices

o "Hot spots:" specific geographic locations where access points provide public wireless broadband network services to mobile visitors through WLANs

o WPA encryption technology: Wi-Fi Protected Access, a security protocol for wireless 802.11 networks

o WPA, WPA2: versions of WiFi Protected Access that use intricate key hierarchy to generate new encryption keys at each new access point

o JiWire.com: a Web site that locates free and paid WiFi hotspot networks and instructs on use of Wi-Fi products and wireless broadband services

o VPN: virtual private network; uses a public telecommunications infrastructure, such as the Internet, to provide individual users with secure access to their firm's network--EF

Erin Flynn is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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