Wired Versus Wireless Networks: What’s Right For You?

When comparing wired networks to wireless ones, it’s six of one, half dozen of another. Wired network speeds have increased to the gigabit range, providing more rapid, reliable and secure access to stored data. On the other hand, wireless networks offer flexibility, mobility and faster return on investment (ROI). What’s a network planner to do when faced with a purchasing decision?

An increasing number of businesses that already have wired networks in place are installing wireless networks to supplement their existing functionality, according to recent research by market research firm In-Stat, based in Scottsdale, Ariz. More than 75 percent of U.S. businesses currently have at least one mobile data application, and the use of wireless is spreading across multiple applications and all vertical markets. These numbers will only grow as more enterprises supply knowledge workers with notebook and laptop computers, and as wireless technologies continue to mature.

No Decision

Which network is the best option? This is one instance where the best choice may be not making a choice. That’s the advice of Michael Spencer, a partner with i2 Partners, a strategic IT consulting firm based in Seattle, Wash. “Each technology has compelling advantages, but neither of them can substitute for the other,” he says. “Think of them as complementing each other.”

Here’s a rundown of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each:

  • Speed  When it comes to speed, there’s absolutely no contest: Wired networks are in the winner’s circle. This is especially clear when you consider the actual throughput of these networks, says Charles Stanton, president of Manhattan Networks, a boutique network consulting firm based in New York City. Although wired networks can now reach the 1-gigabit-per-second range, the actual throughput is about 1,000 megabits. Wireless networks, on the other hand, have 64 megabits-per-second limits, “with horrible throughput,” says Stanton. “We’re talking about 25 percent, which gives you only 10 megabits compared to 1,000 megabits. There’s no comparison.”
  • Reliability and robustness Enterprises simply can’t afford network downtime. Increasingly, mission-critical, real-time operations — such as online transactions or factory floor processes — depend on the network to keep the very business functional. This is in addition to the fact that executives and knowledge workers more than ever require consistent and continuous network access to be productive. Wired networks are the only ones that provide this level of robustness, says Spencer. “Wireline is infinitely more predictable,” he says. Furthermore, the further devices are from the access point, the less reliable the service. “Such networks are extremely prone to environmental interference,” adds Spencer. “You can have significant problems because of the presence of other devices, or because of walls or other structural barriers.”
  • Security Given the kinds of sophisticated protection technologies now available for traditional wired networks, it’s a “not trivial” feat to tap into someone’s cable today, says Stanton. Wireless, however, is inherently less secure, especially since most businesses today still don’t encrypt data across internal networks. “Security represents a constant battle for network administrators when it comes to wireless networks,” says Spencer.
  • Convenience Here is where wireless technology really shines. It is primarily because of convenience that more and more enterprises are installing wireless networks inside their buildings or throughout their corporate campuses. Employees can easily move around the building, take their laptops into meetings and cafeterias, and otherwise work more flexibly than if they were anchored to desktop computers hardwired to the network.
  • Cost effectiveness  Wireless also provides a speedier ROI because the initial investment is so much less than wired installations, and the payback in improved worker productivity is so immediate. Moreover, wireless is much more economical in older buildings where ripping out and replacing of older infrastructure would otherwise be necessary.

What we’re likely to see, according to networking experts, is that even as wired networks will remain the technology of choice for what Stanton calls the “heavy lifting” of a business, wireless penetration will continue to increase. Says Stanton, “Except for very unusual circumstances, we recommend that clients use a wired network as the foundation for their networking needs and layer wireless on top of that. That way you get the best of both worlds.”