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Tech 101 | PC Focus

Totally Wired About Wireless LAN Adapters

July 05, 2001|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | larry.magid@latimes.com

I've been trying out two laptop computers that are completely unwired. Despite the lack of any Ethernet cables, these fully functional machines are connected to my local-area network, or LAN, at home and to the Internet as I wait for a plane at certain airports or sip a cappuccino at my local coffee shop.

Toshiba's Tecra T8200 and IBM's ThinkPad A22m are relatively early examples of what is likely to become a trend in portable computing--laptops with built-in wireless LAN adapters. Both machines also have standard Ethernet jacks for regular LAN cables. These are high-end systems that cost more than $2,000, but the technology is starting to become available in cheaper machines. At the PC Expo show in New York last week, I saw several upcoming laptops with built-in wireless LANs, including one starting at just over $1,000.

These new laptops are equipped with an 802.11b adapter that makes it possible to connect to a network or to the Internet by radio waves. But, unlike wireless Internet technologies such as Ricochet that try to serve entire metropolitan areas, 802.11b devices are designed to communicate with a nearby access point--usually less than 300 feet away--at speeds as high as 11 megabits per second. That's as fast as many wired LANs.

You can add an 802.11b adapter to any notebook PC for about $100, but you have to be careful with the aftermarket cards that you insert into the notebook's PC slot because they have an antenna that sticks out an inch or so from the side of the laptop. I've managed to break two of them so far.

If you have an Apple iBook or PowerBook G4, you can purchase a $99 Apple AirPort card, which doesn't protrude from the side of the machine. The Apple Airport is compatible with the 802.11b--sometimes called "WiFi"--standards used on Windows machines, so you can set up a wireless network with both Macs and PCs.

Companies that make 802.11b adapters and base stations include 3Com, SohoWare, SMC Networks, Nortel, D-Link, NDC Communications and Cisco. 2Wire and 3Com both offer "home gateway" products that offer multiple services, including standard wired Internet, wireless and firewall protection.

There are basically two uses for this technology. It's being used in homes and offices as a substitute for a wired Ethernet LAN and it's being used in public locations such as airports, hotels and coffee shops to allow visitors to access the Net from their laptops.

An increasing number of companies are using 802.11b because it allows employees to access the LAN and the Internet from conference rooms or any other location in the building or the campus. You'll also find the protocol on some university campuses.

What excites me about the technology is that I can use it in an increasing number of public places.

MobileStar (http://www.mobilestar.com) offers service in American Airlines' Admirals Clubs and gate areas in several airports and a number of hotels around the country. The company also offers service in selected Starbucks coffee shops in Northern California, New York, Texas and Washington state and plans to expand to other areas this year. The company has a variety of pricing plans ranging from $2.95 per use to $59.95 a month for unlimited use.

Austin-based Wayport (http://www.wayport.com) has installed 802.11b access points at airports in Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Seattle and San Jose and hotels such as the New Otani in Los Angeles and the Four Seasons in New York. The company charges $4.95 a connection at airports and $7.95 at hotels. A single connection allows for unlimited use for a day.

Palo Alto-based Airwave (http://www.airwave.com) offers free service in restaurants and bookstores throughout the Bay Area.

If this technology takes off, it could offer a real alternative to wireless Internet services, which are typically a lot slower and a lot more expensive. Although 802.11b doesn't cast as wide a net as other wireless options, it does deliver very high-speed Internet access where people need it the most.

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Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.

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Connect: Check out past columns at www.latimes.com/pcfocus

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