Without a doubt, the falling cost of wireless LAN components is a major factor driving WLAN adoption. The lower cost, coupled with a fast-maturing technology, is prompting many organizations and IT professionals to ask the question, “What is the cost of deploying a wireless LAN vs. a wired one?”

While every LAN assessment is unique, there are common factors to consider when evaluating which solution is the most cost-effective for a given situation. I’ll look at both hard costs and soft costs to shed some light on how wireless stacks up against wired.

Selecting the right wireless solution
In my article “Understanding wireless LAN protocols and components,” I discussed the three main components that make up a typically wireless LAN solution: the wireless network card, which you will find in the desktop or laptop, the access point used to connect wireless clients to the network, and the bridge, which allows for building-to-building wireless connectivity.

What I did not discuss are the numerous vendors now offering various wireless products. You would think that vendors offering wireless network cards for around $70 and access points for under $200 would make the cost question a little easier to answer. But while vendors such as Linksys, D-Link, and NetGear offer an inexpensive product line of wireless products that are great for the small office/home office (SOHO) environment, you don’t necessarily want to rely upon them to run a mission-critical network segment.

Businesses need to consider enterprise-class wireless manufacturers and their corresponding products. An example would be Cisco’s Aironet brand of wireless products (or ORiNOCO’s wireless products), which I feel are better suited to the wireless requirements of today’s corporate IT environment. At the time of this writing, Cisco’s Aironet 350 series PC Card lists for about $169, its sister PCI card for $299, the access point is $749, and the building-to-building bridge costs around $1,999. (Remember: These are list prices.) At first glance, your reaction may be, “No way!” But let’s take a closer look at why these products may be a better deal.

Hard costs
Of course, most of us are familiar with the costs associated with a typical wired solution. Take a couple of new corporate office buildings for example. Traditional wired costs may include CAT5 copper cable runs in the ceiling and through walls, along with their corresponding data drops needed on just about every wall feasible. I bring this up because unless you are going to run the cable yourself, quite a bit of installation costs will be associated with laying the basic wiring and data drops.

A wireless LAN also still requires installation (preferably professional) and some degree of cabling; however, one access point can usually be installed in the amount of time it takes to terminate one data drop. To make this part of the solution complete, you may also need to throw in the cost of traditional RJ-45-based network cards, depending on whether your systems come with them preinstalled.

Don’t forget about the fiber-optic cable run that may be needed to connect two buildings due to the distance limitations and conductivity of copper. Try calling your local fiber optics installer and asking the cost to connect two adjacent buildings that are 150 meters apart with fiber line. Now ask for an installation time and find out what special equipment is needed on each end. Did you mention that there’s a small concrete walkway that runs between the two buildings? You’ll probably be gasping for air once the installer gives you a ballpark price.

Now compare that with the costs of using two Cisco Aironet bridges to provide line-of-site connectivity between the two buildings. Not to mention that these two locations can be connected and up and running just a few hours after opening the boxes. This small scenario may be overly simplified. But the fact remains that once you take into account the associated installation and setup fees, a wireless LAN can be implemented at a fraction of the cost of a wired one—and a wireless LAN can usually be set up in a much shorter time frame.

Soft costs
Remember that the most cost-effective solution does not necessarily mean the cheapest. There are many soft costs to consider when evaluating a wireless vs. wired network.

For starters, there’s the real estate issue. If your company has a long-term lease (five or more years) or owns a building, a traditional copper wired network could suffice for the duration of the organization’s needs.

In contrast, a short one- to three-year lease may provide a greater cost value for wireless. Paying for a wired LAN in this situation could be considered a sunk cost if the organization decides to move, whereas a wireless network could be deemed an investment that moves with the company. So even when a wireless network costs more up front than a traditional wired network, a wireless network may pay for itself if you will be moving your office.

Speaking of moves, eliminating desktop Move, Add, and Change (MAC) costs is also a powerful inducement to adopt a wireless LAN. As companies downsize and upsize, they are bound to require changes in office layouts and designs. Usually, power outlets are plentiful, but data drops can be few and far between.

Another compelling benefit of wireless LAN solutions is increased mobility and productivity. Examples include doctors who can make their rounds with immediate access to patient information, conference rooms that allow access to corporate data during meetings, and libraries that enable you to complete research while remaining connected to a corporate network and/or the Internet. The list goes on and on. The increase in efficiency that can be realized by the freedom of a wireless LAN may sometimes be difficult to measure in terms of soft costs, but it’s real and should be considered.

Final word
More and more organizations are leveraging their existing investment in a copper wired network and enhancing it with a wireless LAN. This strategy offers many advantages, including the ability to add wireless “hot spots” to areas that traditionally were not wired. Many colleges and corporate organizations have implemented this in conference rooms, lobbies, and even outside working areas.

It’s true that no simple equation can determine whether a wireless LAN is indeed more cost-effective than a wired one for your scenario. Both the hard and soft costs of each solution have to be evaluated, along with security, standardization, and performance issues. But with wireless prices falling and productivity gains increasing, the wireless vs. wired cost comparison deserves a closer look. Many organizations will recognize significant savings with a wireless LAN solution.