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Wi-Fi Basics: It's All in the Cards

Wireless technology offers users of laptops and hand-helds a variety of technical options for sniffing out signals and accessing the Internet.

September 23, 2003|Scott Doggett | Times Staff Writer

If you're thinking of plunging into the Wi-Fi world, here's what you should know.

For starters, if your laptop or hand-held computer is more than a few months old, you'll need to buy a wireless networking card. Without it, your machine won't be able to receive a signal from a Wi-Fi "hot spot."

Many types of Wi-Fi cards are available, but you need only concern yourself with the industry standards: the 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g. Of these, the 11b is the most widely deployed. It has a maximum speed of 11 megabits per second -- much faster than a digital subscriber line or cable modem connection, thus allowing for fast data uploads, downloads and Web surfing -- and can pick up a Wi-Fi signal from as far away as 300 feet.

The 11a card had been touted as the likely successor to the 11b because of its maximum speed of 54 Mbps, nearly five times faster. However, experts at Pyramid Research and other advisory firms believe hotels will be reluctant to install 11a access points because of lack of reach (a maximum 100 feet) and because many users will have 11a/b dual-band cards that work with both 11a and 11b standards.

A newer, improved card is the 11g, which boasts the speed of the 11a (54 Mbps) and the superior range of the 11b (300 feet). Because the 11g operates on the same 2.4-gigahertz spectrum as the 11b, it will function fine in a hot spot configured for 11b users. If you're working with a huge amount of data or video, in most instances you will be better off with the faster 11g.

An 11a card can be bought for $30, the 11b for $45 and the 11g for about $65. All three come with driver software to sniff out Wi-Fi signals.

All but the oldest laptops, and many of the newest hand-held computers, contain a slot that permits the user to easily insert a wireless networking card. Many laptops are now being sold with an Intel-made Centrino mobile processor inside, which negates the need to buy a Wi-Fi card. Current Centrino chips support 11b and 11g cards, and laptops with Centrino come pre-installed with sniffer software. Laptops with Centrino generally cost $50 to $75 more.

Some hot spots allow free Internet access. There, sniffer software will detect a signal and a prompt will appear on your computer screen informing you of the free hot spot.

Most hot spots are not free. If you enter a fee-based hot spot, you will be prompted to select one of several payment options. Most paid providers, including U.S. leaders Boingo Wireless and T-Mobile Wireless, offer several pay-as-you-go plans as well as a monthly plan. There are many other, smaller providers.


Airport `hot spots'

These major U.S. airports contain public Wi-Fi hot spots in addition to those found in airline clubs. The Web site contains information on such locations within each airport.

* Austin-Bergstrom (Texas) International

* Dallas-Fort Worth International

* Los Angeles International

* Miami International

* Metropolitan Oakland International

* Pittsburgh International

* Rochester (N.Y.) International

* Salt Lake City International

* Savannah (Ga.) International

* San Francisco International

* San Jose International

* Seattle-Tacoma International

* Tampa (Fla.) International


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