In my last column, I wrote about remote access to your office or home desktop computer via wired or wireless systems. This month, I write about the future of wireless LAN connections, known in the trade as “Wi-Fi”—a short-range radio technology operating over distances of several hundred feet that frees computers from their physical tethers to the Internet. I believe that Wi-Fi connections will become ubiquitous in the next few years and will dramatically change the way we do business.
The industry already has rolled out the new 802.11g Wi-Fi standard, a vast improvement over the older 802.11b. The 802.11g standard permits connections at up to 54 Mbps and offers 128-bit encryption. The new Intel® Centrino® chip sets for portable computers include Wi-Fi circuitry on the motherboard, connecting to an antenna embedded in the edge of the lid. There even are Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs, such as the Palm Tungsten C, the HP iPaq H5550, and the Toshiba e750. In late July, Intel quietly announced that it was teaming with a small Israeli company to back a free wireless standard, 802.16 (“WiMax”), that is intended to send and receive data over distances up to 30 miles at speeds up to 70 Mbps. Intel is exploring using WiMax to distribute signal to Wi-Fi antennas in local neighborhoods, which then will connect to your portable device. If successful, the technology rapidly will alter the communications landscape.
The local infrastructure already is experiencing an explosion of Wi-Fi public access points (“hot spots”) in hotels, coffee shops, restaurants and airports. McDonald’s joined Starbucks and Borders bookstores in offering free or subsidized hot spots, when McDonald’s started rolling them out in late July at its fast food restaurants in San Francisco and New York City. By the end of this year, there will be more than 24,000 “hot spots” world wide. According to Craig R. Barrett of Intel, there now are about 40 million Wi-Fi users. New access points (Wi-Fi hubs) are selling at the rate of about 15,000 a day, which makes Wi-Fi a much faster-growing technology than cellular telephony. Business travelers are fueling the demand, with 75% of the 40 million business travelers in the United States now carrying notebook computers.
In many regions around the country, small groups of volunteers and computer networking hobbyists are deploying free citywide Wi-Fi networks in rapidly growing numbers. For example, two community groups in San Francisco have combined their efforts to create a network of 12 public nodes that are connected in a simple mesh, making signals available locally in a radius of approximately a city block from each antenna. The groups plan to deploy 20 more nodes by the end of this quarter and soon will install antennas on top of Twin Peaks, the highest point in the city, and on Yerba Buena Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
Although both Windows XP and Mac OS X automatically detect wireless networks and allow you to connect to them without additional software, there now are devices that allow you to locate a “hot spot” without even opening your computer. The credit-card size WiFi Finder by Kensington (MSRP $39.95), at the press of a button, will detect an 802.11b or 802.11g network within 200 feet and will indicate the strength of the signal.
Combining Wi-Fi technology with Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) [more about VoIP in my next column] will allow you to use your computer wirelessly for both telephony and videoconferencing. If your portable computer is not already equipped with a Bluetooth card, just plug the Bluetooth transceiver for the Plantronics M1500 into the headset plug on your computer, hook the wireless headset over your ear, invoke your Internet telephony application, and you’re ready to communicate world wide without worrying about the compatibility of your cellular phone with the local cellular system. (The same M1500 works on your cellular phone, if it has a headset plug. If you use a Nokia cellular phone, there is an adapter that connects at the base of the phone.) Clip a portable web cam, such as the Creative WebCam Notebook (MSRP $49.95), to the top of the screen on your portable computer, and you even can do wireless videoconferencing.
While this technology will help free you from communications wires, there is a downside. Adding radio frequency transceivers (WiFi and Bluetooth) to your portable computer imposes a significant drain on your batteries. Therefore, unless you have extra fully-charged batteries or a power-plate solution to provide more power, you still will need to either conserve power by switching off your wireless devices when you are not using them or stay close to a power source – at least until battery technology improves or portable computers start integrating photovoltaic power sources. Even with this limitation, the ability to work and communicate wirelessly wherever you may be – in the back yard, in the courthouse, at a luncheon meeting across the country, or in your hotel halfway around the world – with ever-increasing ease, will simplify your life and enhance your relationships with your clients.
J. Anthony Vittal ( firstname.lastname@example.org) chairs the litigation department of Finestone, Richter & Vittal, P.C., in Los Angeles, California. A former member of the ABA Standing Committee on Technology and Information Systems and a member of various technology-oriented committees of ABA Sections, he speaks and writes frequently on legal technology topics.