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Warming to Wi-Fi

The network technology is so inexpensive and easy to set up that it has sparked a kind of populist movement. 'Hot spots' are sprouting all over.


Cell phone executives hype the arrival of their new "3G" networks, but a lowly technology from the computer world has been steadily gaining converts as an alternative path to the nirvana of high-speed mobile access to the Internet.

The technology is known as "Wi-Fi," and it's the most popular method of creating wireless networks in homes and businesses. For a few hundred dollars, anyone can pick up the gear at a local computer store and have a network running in a few hours.

Although cellular carriers are spending billions to build their high-speed nationwide networks, Wi-Fi adherents point out that their off-the-shelf technology is faster, cheaper and easier. But there's one important caveat: Its range is only about 150 feet.

That might seem like a fatal flaw for a technology vying for a piece of the wireless revolution--a movement built on the promise of ubiquitous high-speed Web access that works whether you're sitting in an easy chair or on a bullet train.

But as the revolution has gathered steam, the industry has begun to realize that the nationwide reach of 3G networks is not really necessary for everyone. What's important is to be able to connect in a few key locations: home, office, airport, hotel and--why not?--the coffee shop.

Business campuses are embracing Wi-Fi networks, and even retailers are installing local systems for customers' use while they shop. In many urban areas, computer buffs can move from one Wi-Fi "hot spot" to another, keeping their Web connectivity as they go.

"You can go to airports and other hot spots and be amazed at the performance," said Adam Sewall, the former chief executive of wireless gear maker Spectrum Wireless Inc., who now works at ComVentures, a venture capital firm in Palo Alto, Calif.

Even wireless carriers forging ahead with their "third-generation" plans are waking up to the benefits of including Wi-Fi hot spots as part of their national networks--not as a replacement but as a supplement.

At least two wireless carriers, VoiceStream and Sprint PCS, already have invested in Wi-Fi firms. Most others have deals in the works.

Wi-Fi, short for "wireless fidelity" and also known by the techie moniker 802.11b, is the wireless version of the common ethernet networks that link computers in homes and corporate offices. The original selling point of Wi-Fi when it was introduced several years ago was that it eliminated the need to snake miles of wires throughout a building.

The earliest version of wireless ethernet transmitted information at about 1 megabit per second--not particularly fast compared with the 100-megabits-per-second speeds of wired ethernet. Today, Wi-Fi transmits information at a respectable 11 megabits per second, and a recently adopted standard, 802.11a, will bump speeds up to 54 megabits per second.

Wi-Fi still isn't up to wired speeds but runs rings around 3G wireless technology. The advanced wireless networks that carriers such as Verizon Wireless Inc., AT&T Wireless Services Inc. and Sprint PCS Group Inc. are bringing out this year deliver speeds of 60 to 120 kilobits per second.

Wi-Fi is so cheap and easy to set up that it has sparked a kind of populist movement. Wireless hot spots are popping up in all sorts of places, creating a pseudo sense of ubiquity in some densely populated urban areas.

But in the suburbs, countryside or even big buildings, Wi-Fi begins to lose its luster.

Russ Intravartolo, chief executive of StarNet Inc., an Internet service provider based in Palatine, Ill., said his firm is expanding its wireless high-speed Internet service to customers in Chicago's northwestern suburbs. StarNet recently began using Wi-Fi to put wireless LANs, or local area networks, into apartment complexes and discovered the difficulties inherent in the technology.

"Bringing in the signal into a development and then distributing it to everyone can be a struggle," he said. "We have this 14-story condo where we're trying to serve the residents with a wireless LAN, but we find it won't work from one floor to the other.... Even when you install a wireless LAN for one floor, it may not propagate everywhere you want to reach."

These difficulties with Wi-Fi's low-powered radio technology probably will ensure that the higher-powered signals of 3G will find a significant mass market, said Annabel Z. Dodd, author of "The Essential Guide to Telecommunications."

"In the end, I'd say Wi-Fi is complementary to 3G wireless," she said.

A San Diego bus that marries 3G and Wi-Fi may provide a glimpse of this hybrid future.

Operating on the campus of UC San Diego, the bus is connected to the Internet via an advanced 3G network providing speeds of 2.4 megabits per second. Riders on the Cybershuttle access that network through a standard Wi-Fi network set up inside the bus, which is essentially a rolling hot spot.

"It's like a mobile version of a cable modem," said Ramesh Rao, director of UCSD's advanced Internet division.

Although it has many advantages, Wi-Fi could become a victim of its own success. It uses unlicensed segments of radio spectrum that are shared by many sorts of devices, including some kinds of cordless phones.

More applications for the same spectrum are in the works, said Roger Marks, who chairs a standards committee for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

"There are so many products that want into the band that there are a lot of concerns about the coexistence problem," Marks said. "It's hard because no one has a clear answer. There's always a scenario how these things can interfere with each other and scenarios where they don't.... But no one knows for sure."

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