When you order your next venti mocha at the neighborhood Starbucks, don't be surprised if you're asked, "Do you want a T-1 with that?" No, Starbucks isn't an Internet service provider. Well, not really. But thanks to what's known as WiFi, Starbucks is now able to offer wireless Internet access at more than 1,000 locations.
Millions of WiFi "base stations" were sold in 2002 for home networks-and that number is expected to more than triple in three years. Plus, more than 90 percent of all laptops sold by 2006 will have wireless capabilities built in. Is it possible that true wireless Internet access has arrived?
Wireless Fidelity Technology
Numerous terms exist to label the technology of "wireless fidelity." The two most common terms, used interchangeably, are WiFi and 802.11b. The latter refers to the 802.11b specification published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE. (Read the April 2002 issue's E-Definitions for background on the IEEE's PC networking standards.)
WiFi transmission operates in the 2.4 GHz range-the same as newer cordless phones-and uses the Ethernet protocol for data exchange. The analogy to cordless phones, in fact, is a useful one: Much like cordless phones exchange the same data (voice conversations) using radio waves that land-line phones do using wires, WiFi systems exchange data between computers without wires using the same radio spectrum.
WiFi can handle data transfer speeds of up to 11 megabits per second. That is slower than most corporate LANs today (which operate at "fast Ethernet" speeds of 100 Mbps), but is much faster than most high-speed Internet connections (which range from 128 kilobits per second to 1.5 Mbps). Computers using WiFi to communicate can often be separated by several hundred feet.
Prominent Uses: Connecting from Any Room
The biggest WiFi explosion to date is in the home. With the growing availability of high-speed Internet access (courtesy of DSL and cable modems), WiFi systems offer an ability for multiple computers, especially laptops, to have access to the Internet from anywhere in the house. You can walk around and connect at will.
Most computer stores and major retailers now carry WiFi equipment. For less than $300 you can outfit your home with a wireless base station (which handles transmitting out to the remote computers) and a PCMCIA antenna card (for the laptop to access the network). Setup shouldn't take more than a half hour, though some systems are more user-friendly than others. Swing by epinions.com and Amazon.com for user reviews. (They can be very helpful in evaluating which systems are most stable and intuitive.)
Once you have a wireless antenna card hooked to your laptop, it will periodically scan for a WiFi signal. This is where things get interesting.
A Hunt for Unprotected Signals: Wardriving
Imagine sitting at a café while getting caught up on your e-mail. In your system tray, a light turns from red to green: Your computer "sees" a WiFi signal. Sure enough, when you open your browser, you're connected to the Internet, via a shared broadcast frequency.
This "sharing" of connectivity is what worries many commercial ISPs. Although many users who set up their own WiFi networks have no intention of sharing their connectivity, if they don't take measures to lock their signal, it's available to anyone within range. Indeed, a small subculture has grown up around the hunt for unprotected wireless signals. Called "wardriving," the hunt involves people driving around town with equipment designed to "sniff" for WiFi signals. If they find one, they mark its location and move on. (There are even sites on the Internet providing directories of locations that have unprotected WiFi networks.)
Commercial Connectivity Efforts
Putting aside the possible ethical question of "taking" someone else's Internet connectivity, there is a growing commercial effort afoot to provide wireless connectivity to mobile computer users. For example, in a recent partnership with T-Mobile (the wireless company formerly known as Voicestream), Starbucks, as mentioned at the beginning of this column, now has more than 1,000 locations that offer wireless Internet access. T-Mobile also announced a plan to wire many Borders locations nationwide. And it recently inked a deal with American, Delta and United Airlines to provide wireless access in more than 100 flight clubs around the country. Unlimited access starts at around $30 per month. Per-minute plans are available as well.
One T-Mobile competitor is Boingo, a company focused solely on wireless access that was founded by Sky Dayton, the founder of Earthlink. Boingo partners with local businesses that are looking for additional revenue opportunities: They buy a kit from Boingo that converts their Internet connection into a WiFi access point. From that stage forward, fees from people who use the connection are shared with the local business. Boingo currently has more than 800 locations, primarily in the United States and Canada (with a handful of locations in the United Kingdom, Colombia and Trinidad).
A big focus of these providers and others (such as Joltage and Wayport) is to get wireless access where the travelers are: airports and hotels. The number of hotels offering wireless high-speed access in the United States alone is nearing 1,000, and will doubtless keep growing-avoiding lethargic dial-up access in favor of high-speed connectivity without wires is a big incentive.
Security Issues and Precautions
If you haven't wondered about security by this point in the column, you should have. It is not a trivial concern-though some have blown the risks out of proportion. Clearly, if you expose your computer to a network, you're increasing the likelihood that unsavory characters will be able to view your computer and potentially access your information. A wireless network is not inherently less secure, though the growing number of wireless connections would suggest that many who are setting up their own wireless networks have not taken appropriate security precautions.
What you can do to protect yourself is what you should do with your computer, anyway: Ensure that you have up-to-date virus protection installed and have a firewall running that prohibits unauthorized access to your computer over the network. (One good, free application is Zone Alarm.) Many commercial wireless providers (including Boingo and T-Mobile) provide their own security software to accompany their services, so that may be worth exploring as well.
What Does It Cost?
If you're setting up a WiFi network for wireless access at your house, figure on spending between $200 and $300. If you're just looking for a wireless antenna card for your laptop to allow you to access T-Mobile, Boingo or other networks, that should run about $50. But be sure to contact the services directly, since they may be running promotions that provide significant discounts on the cards themselves. WiFi adapter cards are also available for your PDA so you can surf the Web and check e-mail from your iPaq. (Read "Lighten Your Load: Lose the Laptop" on page 7 for more on using handhelds in combination with wireless networks.)
The cost of commercial wireless service will vary depending on the plan you choose. Per-day costs appear to run about $10. Monthly plans with unlimited access will probably be in the $50 to $75 range, depending on provider and geography.
Are You Ready to Shift to a New Gear?
Is WiFi for you? If you spend a lot of time on the road, the answer is probably yes. The only downside today is the hit-or-miss nature of connectivity. As the market matures, ubiquitous signals will be increasingly likely. In addition, prices are almost certain to fall as the competition increases-until we may actually see wireless access approach dial-up costs.
One thing is certain: WiFi will change your Internet use as dramatically as the shift from dial-up to high-speed did.
Rick Klau ( email@example.com) is Vice President of Vertical Markets at Interface Software, Inc., and co-author of LPM's The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet (2nd ed.).
Boingo Wireless: www.boingo.com
T-Mobile Hotspot: www.tmobile.com /hotspot
WiFi HotSpot Search: www.80211hotspots.com
Wireless Equipment Reviews:
A good 802.11b weblog: