Wi-Fi spreads to `hotspots' and homes

April 03, 2003|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

IN A WORLD of techno-boredom where a hot consumer product is a cell phone that takes bad photos, one little corner of the market has kept its cool - Wi-Fi.

That's the industry's coinage for wireless networks that operate under a standard known officially as IEEE 802.11x. Bored already? That's why they invented a sexy name for it.

Wi-Fi networks don't try to do too much, which is why they're successful. They have a 100-foot range and operate on the same 2.4 GHz spectrum as cordless phones, microwave ovens and other gadgets. Overall, they're cheaper and easier to set up than traditional wired networks, and a lot of people are getting the message.

Thousands of hotels, airports, coffee shops, bookstores, bars and libraries have set up Wi-Fi "hot-spots," where customers and travelers equipped with laptop computers and wireless network adapters can use them to access the Internet, either as a free perk or for a small charge.

Normally, you'd expect these hotspots to be where the techno-hip congregate to sip Frappucino and update their blogs. But the sign of Wi-Fi's critical mass comes from none other than McDonald's, which announced that it would offer an hour of Wi-Fi access with a combo meal at selected restaurants in New York, Chicago and a West Coast city to be named later.

IDC researchers expect the worldwide number of hot spots to grow from 19,000 at the end of last year to 118,000 by 2005. That doesn't count unofficial hot spots operated by individuals and ad hoc community groups. Or thousands of private home and business hotspots available to anyone in the neighborhood because their owners don't realize that they're wide open. More about that later.

Speaking of marketing, Wi-Fi may well go down as one of the greatest successes in history. When market researcher Ipos-Insight surveyed 1,000 people in January, it found that 41 percent had heard of the term Wi-Fi. And 38 percent actually knew what it meant. Weirder yet, 3 percent had it in their homes. Considering that this geeky technology barely existed two years ago, that's darn good penetration.

To promote its new Centrino chipset, which will power a new generation of laptop computers with built-in Wi-Fi networking, Intel Corp. recently rated 100 U.S. cities on its new "unwired" scale, which measures the availability of wireless Internet access.

The winner was Portland, Ore., which won't surprise anyone who's visited that delightful town. Baltimore ranked No. 31, which isn't bad - just behind Colorado Springs and Riverside, Calif., and just ahead of Honolulu and Philadelphia.

All of which brings me around to my basement, where our computers are linked by a rat's nest of old-fashioned network cables connected to a couple of switches, a router and a cable modem.

Over the years, I've tried a variety of wireless networking gadgets in pursuit of this column, but never had any need for them after the testing stage. In fact, my elder son absconded with the last Wi-Fi setup, which saved him a messy wiring job in the house he shares.

However, with new wireless laptops and entertainment products arriving, I figured it would be a good idea to get unwired again. So I picked up a wireless access point, a transceiver that plugs into a router or hub and provides the link between the wired network and computers with wireless adapters.

I also invited my son to drop by to try it with his laptop. Arriving while I was still setting up in the basement, he plopped down on the family room couch and fired up his PC. A few minutes later he called out, "Hey, Pops, I'm not getting a very good connection - these Web pages are pretty slow."

That surprised me - not because I expected a faster connection, but because I hadn't even plugged in the wireless access point. In short, I didn't have a wireless network yet.

I checked my son's laptop, and sure enough, he was connecting to a network somewhere. So I turned on the laptop I was testing, and it found a signal, too.

That meant someone in the neighborhood had a wireless network operating, and he obviously hadn't taken any steps to secure it. All he needed to do was turn on a built-in security scheme known as the Wireless Encryption Protocol (WEP). That essentially limits free rides to those who know a password.

I have to admit that surfing on someone else's nickel brought a certain guilty pleasure. Technically, it also was a violation of federal laws that prohibit unauthorized access to others' computer systems.

But were we really intruders? Here we were, sitting in our family room, doing nothing more than turning on our computers while somebody else (I still don't know who) was broadcasting his network signal into our house. An interesting case.

In any event, I finally got our wireless network up, which was the point of the exercise. But it left me with a slightly queasy feeling - maybe this whole wireless network thing is just too easy.

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