Wireless networking is a great fit for healthcare, with providers moving from room to room and portable devices like tablets and laptops always connected. Most of us are so used to having our cellphones at hand that wireless connections for our other devices seem like a given. Indeed, wireless has become so common that we don't even think about it, until we have to.
Wireless networking — via Wi-Fi — offers both benefits and challenges for a medical practice. Obviously, freedom of movement is a huge benefit, as is not having to install network wiring in the walls throughout your office. A well-designed Wi-Fi network can work reliably and with enough speed for almost all uses. Still, with data literally beaming through the air, security is an obvious concern. Reliability is also vital — as anyone who has ever experienced a dropped connection or a failure to connect to a wireless network can easily attest. Speed is important: even a "few seconds" of waiting here and there means ongoing frustration and loss of productivity. And even within a small medical office, there may be "dead spots" where Wi-Fi just doesn't work.
The good news is that Wi-Fi technology and devices have evolved rapidly to address many of these concerns. Wi-Fi security has improved, a good thing since Wi-Fi's old-school Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) security can be broken into in seconds. Reliability has also improved, although this is always a function of the wireless network itself, the devices connecting to it, and the environment. Improving wireless networks' performance has been a constant challenge, with each new Wi-Fi protocol both increasing its theoretical speed and advancing the ability to better support multiple users. The flip side is that these changes will mostly benefit those with the latest and greatest devices. A shiny new 802.11ac network will connect to an older tablet or laptop — but only at the slower speeds the old device supports.
Like most other issues with technology, troubleshooting wireless can quickly immerse you in a sea of acronyms and jargon. But I'll just focus on the most important one. The basic technical standard for Wi-Fi is 802.11, with its many versions identified by the letters following it. The oldest Wi-Fi devices used the 802.11b protocol, which supports a maximum theoretical speed of 22 megabits per second. After the "b" devices, speed increased with the introduction of 802.11g and, later, 802.11n. However today's reigning champ returns to the beginning of the alphabet with 802.11ac, with theoretical maximum speeds of over 1 gigabit per second. "Theoretical maximum speed" is always applicable since real life Wi-Fi speed depends on several factors — you shouldn't be surprised if the actual speed is half of the theoretical maximum.