YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Web without the wires

Wireless fidelity, or WiFi, offers a cordless high-speed Internet connection. The catch: You have to be near a 'hot spot,' and for now that can be hard to find.

September 14, 2004|James F. Peltz and Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writers

With all the hype about wireless access, business travelers may think they're never far from a high-speed Internet connection.

The truth? Far from it.

"WiFi" stands for wireless fidelity, and the technology refers to users' ability to get a high-speed pipeline to the Web -- with a laptop computer or personal digital assistant -- without a cord.

Here's how it works:

An Internet provider transmits an original broadband signal through wires to an access point in a bookstore, coffeehouse, hotel, airport, etc. The signal is then relayed out in a radius of about 300 feet, creating a "hot spot." That signal is available to anyone with a properly equipped laptop or PDA.

There also can be multiple hot spots next to one another, say, at an airport or hotel, so that WiFi is available throughout.

The number of hot spots is growing rapidly. Thousands of them exist at airports, hotels, bookstores and coffeehouses around the world.

Some people have established hot spots in their homes, so multiple users can have wireless access. WiFi providers such as T-Mobile USA and SBC Communications are racing to add more areas where travelers can log on.

Some companies are selling devices that combine WiFi with a cellular phone. And WiFi is available at 30,000 feet. Lufthansa offers WiFi on its Los Angeles-to-Munich flights using a Boeing technology called Connexion. Other carriers are expected to offer it in the coming months.

But on the ground, hot spots are still limited in size and can be, well, spotty. A typical WiFi signal extends only 300 to 400 feet and can be found only in certain lounges or conference rooms in many airports and hotels.

The user often has to search for the nearest hot spot and hope it's not too far away. (There are free software products such as T-Mobile's Connection Manager and websites, including, that can locate them for you.)

"Like the name suggests, it's a spot," said Shiv Bakhshi, mobile and WiFi director at IDC, a consulting firm in Framingham, Mass. "It's not ubiquitously available."

Many airports do not yet have WiFi throughout, including two of the busiest -- Los Angeles International and Chicago's O'Hare. So business travelers waiting for a flight might not have access as they sit next to their airline's boarding gate. They would have to walk to the nearest hot spot in the airport, which may be inconvenient.

"We are hoping more of the airports decide they want to deploy WiFi," said Pete Thompson, a WiFi director at T-Mobile.

Andrew Jones, a scientist at USC's Space Sciences Center who subscribes to T-Mobile's WiFi service, knows the problem. He often flies out of LAX's Terminal 1, which doesn't have WiFi access. "Then you fly to somewhere like Logan [airport] in Boston, which is wired, but it has a different service carrier," Jones said. "So you either have to pay extra money or forgo the pleasure of checking your e-mail."

Even if a hot spot is available, employees may be blocked from entering their corporate Internet networks. Some companies have been slow to make access available because they're worried that current WiFi technology isn't secure enough.

WiFi networks are more vulnerable than wired ones because the signals can be plucked from the air if hackers have the right equipment. But there are precautions -- including encryption and passwords -- that companies and individuals can employ to improve security, and newer WiFi products are being equipped with stiffer safeguards.

Hotels walk the line

The WiFi option has arrived at an awkward time for the hotel industry. Many chains are in the middle of outfitting their facilities with wired Internet connections. Now they must decide whether to add WiFi.

Robert Machen, a vice president of Hilton Hotels Corp., calls it "a transition period between wired and wireless."

Some hotels offer only a wired connection; others have added WiFi service in public areas. At the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu, for instance, it's not unusual to see someone reading e-mail by the pool.

But what about the business traveler who has just checked into a room at 10 p.m. after a long flight, wants to read e-mail before bed and is in no mood to walk back to the lobby for a WiFi connection?

Depending on the hotel, the room may or may not have WiFi access or even a wired Internet connection.

"It just gets frustrating after a while," said Matthew Berger, an intellectual-property lawyer with Morrison & Foerster in Los Angeles who spends two weeks a month on the road. Berger estimates he's able to get a connection, either wired or with WiFi, 75% of the time. Otherwise he does without.

Internet availability, both wired and wireless, is growing rapidly at hotels. Berger and other U.S. hotel guests last year spent about $130 million for either a wired or WiFi connection, and that figure is expected to triple in 2004, according to In-Stat/MDR, a technology research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Los Angeles Times Articles