In Touch without plugging in

WiFi: Wireless Internet access could become as common as cell phones, with computer carriers stopping at "hotspots" to log on.

October 16, 2003|By Doug Beizer | Doug Beizer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With sales territory in and around Baltimore, and his office in Washington, Dave Clark finds himself on the road nearly all the time.

But he is never far from access to his e-mail and other important information off the Internet.

Clark subscribes to a wireless Internet service that enables him to get high-speed Web access at coffee shops, hotels, airports and other places.

"In between appointments I can pick up my mail and have something to drink," Clark said as he did just that at Spoons Coffeehouse & Roastery in Federal Hill recently. "If I need a document or some data from the office for my next appointment, I can just grab it here."

While many industry experts agree the service is in its infancy, companies are betting wireless Internet access - called WiFi - will become as indispensable as cell phones.

There are about 20,000 public wireless locations - called hotspots - worldwide, according to Intel Corporation. And, 70 percent of business travelers surveyed in a recent Intel study said they intend to buy a WiFi-enabled notebook computer when they make their next purchase.

Clark pays $19.95 a month for unlimited access on AirRover Networks, which has 10 hot spots - including City Cafe, Caffe Brio, Spoons and Sylvan Beach Cafe, said Michael Recker, president of AirRover.

And AirRover is a member of Airpath Wireless, a nationwide wireless network of local providers of WiFi. Airpath sells products to set up and manage a hotspot.

Other providers blanket the country, such as T-Mobile HotSpot, which has more than 2,700 locations. The majority of those hotspots are in Starbucks coffeehouses and Borders Books and Music stores.

While wireless is widely available, customer use has yet to skyrocket.

"Usage is a little lower than we had predicted, and I think that's nationally the trend everybody is seeing," AirRover's Recker said.

"What we do have is a loyal group of subscribers that really like the service," he said.

AirRover offers service hourly ($3.95), daily ($9.95), monthly ($19.95) or prepaid cards.

In most cases, signing up for the service is fairly easy, Recker said.

"There is a small learning curve the first time you want to get Internet access in a location," he said. "If you already have a wireless home network, it's very easy."

In many cases, simply opening a Web browser on a wireless-enabled notebook at a hotspot will automatically direct you to a signup screen. Just choose a username and password and enter credit card information.

"From a technical standpoint, it doesn't require anything other than having a wireless client," Clark said of his experience logging on at a hotspot.

Airpath Wireless and its network was founded 2 1/2 years ago, said Timothy Barrett, president and co-founder of Airpath.

"It really started to proliferate in January," he said. "We have about 30 to 50 new WiFi providers a month becoming part of the network."

Barrett likened WiFi hotspots to bank ATMs.

"Your card may be issued by your local bank, but it can be used anywhere," he said.

As the network of WiFi hotspots grows, products to help customers locate those sites are also coming on line.

WiFi Finder from Kensington (www.kensington.com) is a keychain-sized device that can detect a wireless signal. The device can sniff out a signal and how determine how strong it is without your having to boot up a notebook.

A Zagat Survey mini-guide, 2003 Wi-Fi Hotspots, profiles more than 50 restaurants and hotels that have hotspots in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. It is available at www.newyorker.com and www.intel.com/unwire.

Industry experts agree that wireless access points will increase quickly in the next year.

To help spur that growth and gain customers, Airpath announced the release of products aimed at hotspot providers that want to provide free WiFi access.

AirRover's Recker said there is strength in numbers.

For Clark, the proliferation of hotspots will benefit business travelers, like himself, the most.

"When one of my colleagues from Washington is here for the day, we'll meet at one of the hotspot places," Clark said. "That way the resources in D.C. are accessible, and it provides them an opportunity to work."

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