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Hot spots, cool trend

The Wi-Fi revolution is spreading like digital wildfire.

The term IEEE 802.11(b) never will glide off the tongue. And its more popular moniker, Wi-Fi, gives no hint of what it represents.

But Wi-Fi, a system that provides wireless Internet and intranet access, is the predominant trend in Internet access, thanks to the rapid proliferation of “hot spots.” These are small connection zones created by low-powered radio access points installed in an increasing number of airports, coffee shops, hotels, conference centers, schools, businesses, and homes.

Mobile users with Wi-Fi cards in their laptops or handhelds can connect without wires to these access points from up to 300 or 400 feet (sometimes up to a thousand feet) away.

“There are currently approximately 1,200 locations in North America where you can use Wi-Fi in public access areas,” says Brian Grimm, marketing director for Wave Communications in Wilmington, N.C., and a spokesman for the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA). More are coming online, he adds.

For example, Starbucks now has Wi-Fi running in more than 500 shops and recently has announced plans to make it available in up to 70 percent of its 3,200 company-owned outlets in North America.

“Public wireless is deployed around the world today, and the number of sites is growing daily,” adds Michael J. Flanagan, wireless LAN solutions and program manager for Hewlett-Packard’s Global Wireless and Networking Services. “Today, you can go to London, Stockholm, Paris, Tokyo, Seattle, Chicago, New York and more with the same 802.11 setup on your device and have the option of getting public wireless access.”

Price plunge

Basic Wi-Fi systems initially cost several thousand dollars to set up in the late 1990s. But prices have plunged. The cost to install a bare-bones Wi-Fi access point has fallen below $200. And a Wi-Fi radio modem card can be added to a PC for less than $100.

A spokesperson for the research firm Cahners In-Stat says the total of worldwide NIC and AP WLAN units shipped to homes and businesses were 3 million in 2000 and 9.6 million in 2001. Grimm says sales of Wi-Fi products certified by the WECA have risen from less than 50,000 units in 2000 to more than 150,000 in 2002. And they may approach 500,000 units by 2005, with sales almost evenly divided between home users and businesses.

But the United States is not the only Wi-Fi market, Grimm points out. “In Japan, it’s smoking,” he says. “And in Europe, it’s growing very fast.” Indeed, some observers have predicted Wi-Fi will be a $5 billion industry by 2005.

Many home and business desktop computers now are being networked without cables, using Wi-Fi as the connecting link. “Most of the people I know have installed wireless LANs in their homes to take advantage of their DSL connections,” says Hewlett-Packard’s Flanagan.

A few police departments are trying Wi-Fi as a way to send data to and from patrol cars while they are in hot spots. And PC makers are hitting the market with an array of Wi-Fi products for users of laptops, personal digital assistants, and other computers.

While you are inside a hot spot’s coverage zone, you can log into the Internet or into a business intranet at speeds much greater than dial-up, typically one to two megabytes per second. Wi-Fi’s wireless LAN technology is rated at up to 11 megabits per second, just slightly ahead of the old 10 Base-T wired Ethernet standard.

“Wi-Fi is simply an extension of Ethernet, without wires,” says Howard Delaney, marketing manager for wireless, with IBM’s PC Group in Raleigh, N.C. “And a ‘hot spot’ is where you can get connectivity. Indicators that you are in a hot spot include signs posted in public places, and alerts you can set up on your laptop. Wi-Fi is big on the West Coast and in other high-tech areas where there is a grouping of high-tech industries. There are more networks in areas where people are comfortable using it,” Delaney says.

Too much freedom?

Like any good thing, the freedom of movement afforded by Wi-Fi can be overused. Company managers already have discovered that some employees who bring Wi-Fi laptops to department or company meetings spend more time checking their e-mail or surfing the Net than paying attention to what is said.

Workers with Wi-Fi access to a company network may slip away from their desks and stay in the break room or go out on the grounds to surf or write a report in the sunshine. Meanwhile, their phones and in-baskets are left unattended.

On the other hand, Wi-Fi also can boost productivity. A logged-on laptop can be taken to a quiet corner, away from the co-worker in the next cubicle, who is checking voicemail on a speakerphone or arguing with an angry engineer.

Breaking and entering

Easy wireless LAN access has opened a new set of security concerns: wireless hackers and accidental intrusions.

In several widely publicized cases, Wi-Fi users suddenly have found themselves with access to entire hospital networks or airline curbside check-in systems. They have logged in to other wireless home networks and looked around on the hard drives of up-the-street neighbors. Retailers’ Wi-Fi cash register networks have been breached, accidentally or deliberately, by Wi-Fi computer users.

“Most of the security problems stem from the fact that [Wi-Fi’s built-in] security features are not being used,” says Randy Kendzior, a spokesman for Austin-based Dell Computer Corp.’s wireless and communications production marketing group. “If you use them, most security issues are solved.” IBM’s Delaney concurs and points out that some newer solutions also are being developed to improve Wi-Fi’s safety.

Wireless LAN firewalls are one way to keep unauthorized users out of corporate Wi-Fi networks. And any data accessible from a wireless network should be carefully protected, says Bill Jensen, product manager for Check Point Software Technologies Inc. Based in Redwood City, Calif., Check Point is a leading provider of security products for the Internet and wireless LANs.

“Where one network ends and another starts is blurring,” Jensen says. “And all the information on how to attack a network is out there for the 802.11(b) technology,” Jensen says. “Wi-Fi offers great flexibility as an extension of a fixed network. But you need to keep someone from getting into the main network through poor security on the wireless network.”

Home users also should consider using protection software as well as Wi-Fi’s basic security features, Jensen adds.

But not everyone wants to keep other users out, according to Hewlett-Packard’s Flanagan. “One unusual way wireless LANs are being used now harkens back to the 1960s, where the theme was ‘everybody sharing.’ This is found today with people opening up their home wireless networks connected through DSL to people on the streets.”

Access power

“Making money with Wi-Fi primarily means becoming an Internet service provider and charging for access to your high-speed Internet connection,” says Randy Kendzior, a spokesman for Dell Computer Corp.’s wireless and communications product marketing group in Austin, Texas. “But wireless may not always be intended as a profit center.”

For example, Wi-Fi is becoming increasingly popular in schools, because entire buildings can be networked cheaply and quickly. Many coffee shops, airports, conference centers and major hotels now offer Wi-Fi hotspots geared for business travelers. When one major company recently held a convention in New York City, it put up wireless access points so convention goers could take their laptops to a nearby park and still log in, Kendzior says.

Don’t tread on me

One looming negative for Wi-Fi’s growth is the expanding use of the 2.4GHz Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) radio band by many types of unlicensed wireless devices and services. Corporate Wi-Fi networks have suffered interference from parking lot security systems and other facilities and devices. Home users who have installed Wi-Fi networks for their family computers have encountered interference from other ISM radio services, as well as from neighbors who also have gone Wi-Fi.

However, growing interference will not be the death of Wi-Fi, Dell’s Kendzior contends. He notes that the Wi-Fi industry already is working to move to another slice of unlicensed radio spectrum, the 5GHz band. There, more transmission spectrum will be available, and data speeds up to 54Mbps may be possible, he says.

“Eventually, the goal for the industry is to develop a single standard that will work globally,” Kendzior says. “But the challenge is meeting regulatory practices for each country, so that it’s standard around the globe.”

Chaotic frontier

For the near term, Wi-Fi remains a wild frontier, alive with competing agendas and possibilities for innovation and change.

The Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance is pushing Wi-Fi to be “the global wireless LAN standard across all markets” and is promoting its members’ growing array of products that comply with the 802.11(b) standard.

But Cupertino, Calif.-based Etherlinx recently has made headlines by tinkering with Wi-Fi’s standards. It has developed a way to extend the system’s radio range from about 400 feet to a stunning 20 miles. Using a technology known as “software-designed radio,” users will be able to attach an inexpensive repeater antenna to the outside of their houses and get hooked up to an ISP via Wi-Fi. If successful, Etherlinx’s version of Wi-Fi could become the primary means for home users to access the Internet. Stay tuned.

Even before Etherlinx, hundreds of Wi-Fi ISPs across the country are rigging up neighborhood Nets in areas too remote for broadband. Using existing off-the-shelf equipment, a cul-de-sac ISP owner can share the cost of a dedicated line with several of his neighbors, bringing broadband to areas that would not otherwise support it.

Meanwhile, several competing “microcarriers”–companies that provide Internet service in public hot spot locations–may serve different segments of one airport or other large facility. This means you may have to sign up for more than one service if you want to move from the hot spot in one airport terminal to the hot spot in another. Also, while some Wi-Fi access services are free, others require a fee.

Earthlink’s founder, Sky Dayton, recently has been trying to simplify the microcarrier situation by building up an international network of hot spots. His firm, Boingo Wireless Inc., has been forming strategic partnerships with hundreds of hot-spot providers. The goal is for Boingo users to be able to open their laptops in many different airports, restaurants and other locations, and quickly find service and log on. They should not have to worry about whether they are registered with a particular hot spot or whether they will stay connected if they wander into another provider’s hot spot, Dayton has stressed.

In the shadow of these market developments, the natives are getting restless in 3G land. Many telecommunications companies have invested heavily over the past few years in developing so-called third generation (3G) wireless devices that function as a handheld phone, PC and personal digital assistant. 3G devices are supposed to be capable of simultaneous transfer of speech, data, text, pictures, audio, and video.

But the soaring popularity and sinking cost of Wi-Fi have overshadowed 3G. While 3G systems offer much wider coverage than 802.11(b) access points, its standards are built around slower data transfer rates: 144Kbps for vehicular transmission, 384Kbps for pedestrian traffic, and two Mbps for indoor use. Also, several major 3G companies continue to squabble over which standards to adopt.

Not surprisingly, telecom firms now are seeking ways to get 3G and Wi-Fi to work together. For example, the telecom giant Nokia recently unveiled a wireless Wi-Fi/3G card that lets laptop and handheld computers work in one system or the other.

“It takes 10 to 20 Wi-Fi hotspots just to cover an airport,” explains Jon Hambidge, senior director of marketing for IP Wireless Inc. in San Bruno, Calif. “If you want to extend it to neighboring hotels, you’ll then need a lot more. You can stick up one cell tower and cover not only the airport but the hotels and any businesses and residences in the area, as well. The cell radius of 3G is two and a half to seven miles on our network.”

Other advantages of a 3G system include greater freedom from interference and better customer service, Hambidge contends. IP Wireless’ products operate in the FCC-licensed 2.5 to 2.7GHz spectrum rather than in the unlicensed 2.4 to 2.5GHz ISM band used by Wi-Fi. The ISM band is employed by cordless phones, microwave ovens, wireless headsets and countless other products that use radio signals.

Wi-fi’s future

“It’s easy to use and easy to set up,” says IBM’s Delaney. “In the future, I think more people will use it, and there will be fewer issues surrounding security and interference. Even using the current bandwidth, we’ll get faster, and the networks will be prevalent around the world. Wi-Fi will be as common as the cordless phone. IBM is investing in its future.”

And making Wi-Fi and 3G systems function together smoothly will be another major challenge. But Hambidge of IP Wireless is upbeat that it will happen. “In the future, we’re hoping to see systems go seamless from 802.11 to 3G,” he says. “The consumer won’t care what system they are using, just that it works.”

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