Lower costs make wireless networks increasingly popular

By Brandon Lorenz, Senior Editor  

When Microsoft Corp. began deploying a wireless network in 1999, the reason was simple: Chairman Bill Gates issued a company directive. Since then, Microsoft’s wireless network has grown to become one of the world’s largest, covering 17 million square feet in 277 buildings in 60 countries.

Wireless networks have surged in popularity since Gates’ order in 1999, in part because they have become cheaper and easier to operate. Access points that formerly cost $2,000 each can now be had for about $600.

“Wireless networking is accelerating dramatically,” says Craig J. Mathias, principal, Farpoint Group, a wireless consulting firm. “We are seeing installations that involve thousands and even tens of thousands of access points. A couple of years ago you never would have seen that.”

The increasing affordability of wireless networks means that, for facilities without any network at all, wireless could become the preferred option. Some facilities, for example, have marble floors or paneled walls that make laying cable a challenge.

“I’ve been in plenty of office buildings with older cubicles, and running a piece of wire through there is a nightmare,” says Mathias. “Even though wire is cheap, the labor around it is expensive.”

While wireless networks might make a good alternative to a traditional LAN in facilities that have no network, wireless networks aren’t always a good replacement for wired networks. In some applications, security issues, network performance and cost may mean a wired network is the best option.

Although wireless networks may not become a substitute for traditional wired networks, they are becoming an increasingly popular second option. Part of the reason is users are accustomed to having the service at home and want to be mobile at work as well, says Mathias.

“We think everyone is going to have one eventually,” Mathias says. “It’s like anything else. Once you have a wireless network, you won’t go back to a wired network.”

A handful of wireless network standards have officially been recognized by the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit group that formed in 1999 to certify the interoperability of wireless LAN products. Other wireless protocols are under development. While the variations have different operating characteristics, they share a common purpose — to allow computers to connect to each other, the Internet and to traditional wired networks using radio technology.

Blanketing Buildings with Wireless

Microsoft’s six-year-old wireless network is undergoing an upgrade that is aimed at making the mammoth network easier to manage. Made up of 5,051 access points, the wireless network will allow 150,000 devices to connect to the network.

The wireless network is designed for two types of users. For those who need secure access, software installed on their computers can offer a secure connection to the wireless network. Visitors, who have computers that may not allow the installation of other software, will have limited “gift” access to the network, says Victoria Poncini, technology architect/network engineer for Microsoft.

Microsoft’s wireless network upgrade centers on making the system easier to manage. Under the old system, each of the 5,051 access points had to be managed separately. The new system simplifies matters by, among other things, centralizing security and firewall control, says Poncini.

Working on a network installation project that large required the cooperation of the facility department, Poncini says. “Both during the initial installation and the current upgrade, we are working hand in hand with the facilities department. They are part of our team and the group that allows us to do this.”

Cooperation from facility managers was especially important during the network’s initial rollout, Poncini says. Early wireless systems had access points mounted below the ceiling, which led to safety concerns. Also troubling, some access points were becoming disconnected from the power supply, which meant the network was not functioning as designed.

A different approach was called for. While the initial system was mounted below the ceiling, many access points were relocated to above the ceiling, though placement varied depending on the network. Relocating the access points improved network coverage, says Poncini. “What people don’t see is out of sight and out of mind, and that’s a good thing.”

Microsoft’s facility team is responsible for securing the access points and making sure they are updated properly. During the upgrade, weekly meetings are held with the facility department to make sure power can be routed to the access points and to make sure the project does not cause any building code violations.

Selective Wireless Upgrades

With seven offices of varying age and size located across the world, the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis took a different approach to wireless deployment. “Any new office that we are building will be wirelessly-enabled from the get-go,” says Steve Novak, chief information officer. “From a cost standpoint, we can’t retrofit the entire firm. What we are doing is focusing on key areas in our legacy locations where it makes sense to upgrade.”

The firm set up a priority list and worked its way down, he says. Conference rooms were at the top of the list, which made sense for the law firm because the rooms are the heart of attorney-client collaboration, says Novak.

The law firm decided to add a wireless network because its attorneys already spend a great deal of time working on the go. Many attorneys were already working at wireless hotspots such as Starbucks or McDonalds, so it made sense to bring the technology into the law firm’s facilities, says Novak. For employees, the network functions virtually the same as if they are connected to a wired network. Clients can log in to the network as guests, just as they would when visiting a hotspot at Starbucks.

Adding wireless networks to existing buildings required the firm’s IT and facility departments to work together. “When we got to the point where we needed to do structure deployment, we had to be in lockstep with our facility management organization,” he says. “When you are going to deploy wireless access points, you need to know how the facility was constructed and the material used. Anything that would hinder signal propagation would cause you to redeploy your network. It’s not like you need a wireless access point every 50 feet. It is really dependent on the facility itself.”

When the firm decided to add a wireless network to its offices in Chicago, it discovered that the foil-lined ceiling prevented the signal from reaching the rooms below the ceiling. The solution was to keep the wireless gear in the ceiling, but to drop antennas below the ceiling in select areas to prevent the signal from being bounced up, says Novak. The firm ran into a similar problem in Munich, Germany where a metal ceiling inhibited the transmission of wireless signals.

While the firm solved its wireless troubles in Chicago, the network will be a short-term one for the company. The firm plans to lease space in a new office tower that is expected to begin construction in 2006. A wireless network that covers the entire firm is part of the plan, Novak says. “The way we position it to the developer is, if you have a building that provides very good wireless service, it’s really a benefit to the building itself. I’d almost lump it into the features that are expected in a smart building.”

Wireless Benefits

In the future, it will be more common for wireless networks to handle building automation tasks, says Mathias. Wireless networks could be used to handle energy management systems, he says, though non-critical equipment like lighting will probably see the technology first. “When you consider the cost amortization, it’s almost free,” he says.

Regardless of the final application, facility executives should consider the wireless network early in the planning stage if the goal is to keep costs in check. That can mean a shift in thinking, says David Heckaman, principal, the Heckaman Group.

“A lot of times, the security, fire and life safety, and building management infrastructure has been bid out by the time the IT folks get the call,” he says. “There is an education process involved here. The IT part has to happen earlier in the process.”

Properly planned in advance, there are wireless technologies on the market that can help keep costs in check, says Heckaman. For example, a hotel in New York wanted to install a wireless network for its guests. The hotel had initially planned a traditional wireless system with access points to cover the space. Instead, the hotel used a distributed antenna system, where a single antenna is connected to a head unit, which can support multiple frequencies, including cellular, paging, wireless LANs and two-way radios. The hotel had initially planned on needing 275 access points, but the system selected only required 27, Heckaman says.

“When you are building a complex, don’t do it the way you’ve done it for the last 30 years, where you put in a separate infrastructure for each piece,” Heckaman says. Most new buildings have separate infrastructures for security, data and voice. “You have all these separate infrastructures and the bigger the building, the bigger the cost.”

Novak says he doesn’t think wireless networks will necessarily prove to be cheaper to install and operate than traditional wired networks. But proper planning can still keep costs down, he says. “You really need to consider wireless when you are designing the base building. That’s when you drive down the efficiencies in terms of cost.”

Some companies have found that productivity gains come with a wireless network. Some Microsoft employees, for example, reported that they saved 30 to 60 minutes of time a day using the wireless network. The company hopes to have a more sophisticated measure of the wireless network’s impact on productivity in early 2006.

“If you walk around to the cafeteria, people are eating lunch and they are holding meetings while they are eating lunch with their laptop and wireless connections,” says Poncini. “It’s very noticeable.”

In addition, Microsoft has found that wireless networking has reduced the amount of setup time that occurs when office space is reconfigured. “In terms of the time it takes to get the office space reconfigured, they have connectivity as soon as they move into their offices, without the wire,” Poncini says. “That cuts down on a lot of recabling and those activities that surround the moves and changes that occur in facilities.”

Mathias cautions that while wireless networks could potentially be used to create more efficient spaces, facility executives need to weigh the drawbacks of reducing office space too much. “Whenever we are faced with a building configuration question, we always remind companies that if you make it so unpleasant that people don’t want to work here, all the wireless in the world isn’t going to save you,” he says. “If people aren’t going to be comfortable, it isn’t going to work.”

Master Facility Executive Certificate Series To Debut

By Cory Clifford

When it comes to managing and executing daily operations, being technically proficient, and ensuring occupant safety and health, many facility managers deserve good grades. But it’s often a different story where executive-level skills are concerned. That’s why BOMI Institute and Building Operating Management magazine have developed a new executive-level education opportunity, the Master Facility Executive Series. The six-part, Web-based offering will debut in January. The series is the first of its kind focused on the needs of facility professionals.

Business knowledge in industry context

“The impetus for developing the series is a recognition of the fact that many facility managers lack the business skills and knowledge required for anyone who wants to have an impact on the so-called ‘C-level,’” says Wendy Loerch, director of education for Trade Press Publishing Corp., publisher of Building Operating Management magazine. One reason that’s true is most facility managers advance through the profession on the basis of their experience in the field and on-the-job results, not because they have MBA degrees. But industry experts say it’s a mistake to discount the principles taught in business school as they relate to facilities management.

The BOMI Institute reports that executive-level facility managers need both business school philosophies and tactical facility management skills. What is most valuable are business principles presented in an industry-specific context, with concrete insights into challenges facing facility management.

The new Master Facility Executive Certificate Series will present executive-level business ideas in the framework of facility issues. It is designed for industry professionals seeking advanced business information specific to facility and property management. The series is divided into six modules. Topics for the modules are: organizational positioning; financial strategy; oversight and cost control; CEO management techniques; mastering negotiations; personal and corporate branding; and leadership.

Each topic will be addressed in a 75-minute Web-based seminar. Before and after the Webcasts, students will receive extensive reading material on the topic; afterward, there will be a 30-minute online question-and-answer period. A cumulative, timed, online exam will test the student’s knowledge of the material presented in each module. The learning modules will explore high-level development topics including:

  • Understanding the DNA of the company
  • Learning how stocks, bonds and financing affect the organization
  • Establishing customer value “linkages”
  • Building and maintaining credibility
  • Ethical decision making

“Abiding by the ‘FM mission’ alone will not guarantee the opportunity to move up in an organization,” says Michael Sallas, BOMI Institute’s vice president of education. “Facility and property executives with a desire to improve their leadership and management abilities must develop a deeper understanding of how to analyze and evaluate complex business issues. When they’re in the trenches, it’s often difficult to devote time to studying business school textbooks.”

“The Master Facility Executive Certificate Series is an educational opportunity designed to bridge MBA-style teachings and the FM mission,” says Loerch.

Completion of all six seminar modules is required for certification, although students can enroll in individual modules. As the series grows, it is intended that the Master Facility Executive certification will be widely recognized as an industry standard and mark of merit for executive-level facility managers.

According to Loerch, continuing education for executive officers will have a positive trickle-down effect. “Studies have shown that continuing education at the management levels benefits the company financially by improving job performances organization-wide.”

Focusing on facilities and business knowledge

Research documents the global need for strong strategic leadership talent. The National Center for Education Statistics predicts that enrollment in degree-granting institutions will grow significantly in the next decade. In fact, the organization foresees a rise in enrollments by 16 percent in people under 25 and an increase of 19 percent in people 25 and over before the year 2014. For facility managers and executives on the job right now, that means more competition for leadership roles from both younger, new professionals and those who are continuing their education as post-graduate work.

Although programs like the Master Facility Executive Series do not grant degrees, they do provide accredited recognition based on specified industry-specific learning accomplishments. Facility managers who realize the value of advancing their understanding of strategic and creative leadership dynamics will be better equipped to compete in both the job market and in the commercial market, ultimately yielding benefits like improved occupant satisfaction.

To enroll or learn more about the Master Facility Executive Series visit the Web site. Online sessions start Jan. 24.

Cory Clifford is brand marketing manager for Trade Press Publishing Corp., publisher of Building Operating Management.

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  posted on 11/1/2005   Article Use Policy

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