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No wires to get syrup on

February 02, 2003|Mark Ehrman

Your suburban International House of Pancakes may sound like a low-fi venue, but packed in on a recent night in Pasadena is a crowd of people (almost exclusively male) debating the future of wireless Internet. It's the Southern California Wireless Users Group (www.socalwug.org). While the harried waiters struggle to keep up with the flapjack and burger orders, others who haven't even received their menus simply open their laptops and browse IHOP offerings from the company's home page.

Not that IHOP has joined Starbucks in going WiFi. "We installed the WiFi unit ourselves and then take it away when we leave," explains SoCalWUG co-founder Frank Keeney.

The appeal of WiFi? For some it's not having to plug wires into a wall to get high-speed Web access. And for those with the pirate gene, it's the MP3 thrill of finding "hotspots" where they can tap into other people's paid connections -- for free. (Keeney's a wireless Internet installer, so he comes down on the "pay to play" side. "Somebody still has to pay for this," he says. Membership in the group, and meetings, however, are free.)

The group of early adopters has grown from 2 to 70 since last spring and is soon to outgrow its meeting place.

At one booth, Mike Pusateri, a 45-year-old VP of technology management at a large entertainment company, shows off his "cantenna," an empty chili can rigged with a coaxial cable and antenna element, which he says extends the range of how far you can pick up WiFi.

Why does he show up? "It's interesting," he says. "Everybody's got a hobby. For me, it's antennas."

-- Mark Ehrman

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