Futurists have been making promises for decades about what the future of the workplace will look like. In the 1990s, one of the big trends was the paperless office, the idea that as a result of growing use of digital documents and ubiquitous computers, physical, paper-based files and folders would be done away with in favour of technology.
This never really came to fruition, as despite the fact that tablet and smartphone technology has advanced to a point far beyond what was possible even a few years ago, the humble printer is still a fixture in any office, and hard copies of important documents remain vital for many people. So it seems that this was one technology where reality didn't match the expectations.
But could the same be true for one of today's big technology ideas - that of the completely wireless office? That's what CommScope's Asia/Pacific director of data centre and inside plant fibre solutions Matias Peluffo has been asking in a recent blog. He concluded that, like the paperless office, the wireless office may seem like an appealing idea in principle, but practical considerations will prevent it becoming a reality.
"Many IT departments are evaluating options to implement wireless-only networks, but there is evidence that the shift to wireless as the primary network may be best implemented gradually, adapting to user requirements and building environment," Mr Peluffo said.
He highlighted a few real-world examples that illustrate the current limitations of wireless-only solutions and why a strong wired backbone should still be an essential part of any network manager's thinking today.
For instance, Mr Peluffo noted a medium-sized software company that opted to deploy a high-density Wi-Fi network as an alternative to upgrading its wired connectivity. However, within a few months, most users had abandoned this and returned to the wired network due to poor Wi-Fi performance at peak hours, leaving the wireless as only a secondary overlay.
As well as speed issues, other potential issues that could arise with a wireless-only network include the risk of interference, which may be a particularly acute problem in certain locations. Mr Peluffo highlighted the case of a large insurance firms whose premises was spread over multiple floors, and designed from scratch to use high-density Wi-Fi, with no wires reaching employees' desks.
While this worked on a small-scale pilot, upon moving in its entire staff, it was discovered that a nearby radar installation interfered with the wireless signal, necessitating the retrofitting of thousands of wires to workstations, which had to be installed after hours at a much higher cost than if they had been preinstalled.
Finally, Mr Peluffo highlighted a global financial firm which, after conducting a pilot of all-wireless, found that operating costs would be substantially higher than a standard wired network, while wired LAN ports were also much more efficient at downloading large software updates.
These examples show that even though wireless connectivity is now an essential requirement for any modern office, many businesses are not yet at a stage where they can rely solely on this technology if they want to work productively and cost-effectively.
"Even when wireless is deployed as the primary network, this doesn't really mean no wires," Mr Peluffo said. "In fact, an opposite trend is apparent, with additional wiring required for data and power connectivity to an increasing number of networked devices (wireless access points, cameras, access control systems, sensors and others). And these devices have become critical, with bandwidth exceeding a gigabit per second."