In a previous discussion of handheld devices, I noted that you could "beam" information from one unit to another. These units use infrared (IR) similar to your TV remote controls, so they have to be in an unobstructed, direct line of sight.
Offices can now have wireless networks in place that run on a system similar to cordless phones and transmits data over long distances and through most walls. This system is commonly called wireless fidelity - Wi-Fi - or 802.11b.
The impact of this technology on the dental office can be remarkable. Data can be transmitted among computers, through your hub, without wires. Your PC or laptop now can be placed virtually anywhere in the office to send or receive patient data, or even back up your system.
Wireless technology also can open up areas of the office that are difficult or impossible to run network wire through. The transmission speed of wireless systems has caught up with that of wired networks. For those of you looking for the technical details, your network runs at 10 or 100 megabits per second (MBPS). Wi-Fi currently runs at 11 MBPS, and will soon be at over 50. No matter what these numbers mean, it is sufficient to run your office data without worrying. A newer version, 802.11a, runs at 52 MBPS. However, the range is only 60 feet compared to the 300-foot range of 802.11b. The two systems are incompatible, unfortunately. The industry is in the primary stages of developing a switching hub that will support both, much like our 10/100 hubs of wired networks; however, it is not yet ready for prime time.
Another valuable feature wireless systems offer is the ability to easily share your Internet connection among different computers. Home users can now have a network without punching holes in that new, expensive wallpaper. In fact, you can sit outside on your veranda and download your email while enjoying the sunset. Several universities - MIT, Carnegie and Stanford among them - are installing Wi-Fi throughout their campuses, giving students and faculty easy access to data and the Internet.
Several practice-management companies have been examining wireless technology. Dental.com has taken it to new heights by using small, very portable wireless workstations that are easily carried around the office. You can access data and appointment schedules from a unit that is about six inches square.
An entirely different wireless system you may have encountered is called bluetooth. This protocol allows wireless operation of appliances and other electronic devices around the home and office. Information is available at blue tooth.com.
For the do-it-yourselfer, a wireless system is relatively simple to set up. You can buy a complete wireless network kit in a retail store or online for about $200-$300. Installation is as easy as plugging a unit into your hub and installing another in (or attach to) your computer.
Just as this idea is gaining in popularity, though, an old idea has been resurrected. HomePlug (.com) uses your house or office wiring to network computers together at a speed slightly higher than the current Wi-Fi. It will also network other devices. There are many big name backers of this new technology.
Finally, to get inside all of these and many other products, go to howstuffworks.com. This easy-to-understand site explains everything from computer hard drives to how that yellow line is made on the TV football games. This is a wonderful resource for the whole family.
So, sing along with Pinocchio: "I've got no strings/To hold me down/To make me fret/Or make me frown/I had strings/But now I'm free/There are no strings on me."
I'll just bet you're humming it…
Dr. Paul Feuerstein installed one of dentistry's first computers when he placed a system in his office in 1978, and he has been fascinated by technology ever since. For more than 20 years, he has taught courses on technology throughout the country. He is a mainstay at technology sessions in New England, including annual appearances at the Yankee Dental Congress, and has been a part of the ADA's Technology Day since its inception. A general practitioner in North Billerica, Mass., since 1973, Dr. Feuerstein maintains a Web site (www.computersinden tistry.com) and can be reached by email at email@example.com.