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Wi-Fi: The Potential and The Reality

By Jeff Kelley

Wireless. They’ve been talking about it for years: the possibilities, the access, the sheer brilliance of being able to review a proposal in the middle of a river in Montana and then send it out. We’ve been promised a lot, but haven’t seen a viable service. For a myriad of reasons common standards are hard to come by. But now 802.11b is offering a range of solutions.

The Technology

802.11 is a family of standard for wireless communications. It resides on the 2.4 GHz microwave band designated by the FCC for low-power devices. It is an unlicensed area of bandwidth that anyone can use.

802.11b, which is the most popular of the family, has potential for 11 Mbps, but averages 6.5 to 8 Mbps, still about 100 times faster than dial-up. All that is required is a “hotspot” or Wireless Access Point connected to a network that a 802.11b card in your notebook or handheld can find. The range is currently about 300 yards.

The potential for this standard of wireless is great and everyone knows it. For instance, Microsoft has already incorporated 802.11 support into XP, and they are working with Intel to introduce it into their Pocket PC’s. You know that when Microsoft starts to do something it’s a proven technology. Large companies already use 802.11b for wireless networks on their campuses. But some companies are working to make it available to the rest of the world.

Applications

Wi-Fi is also making a splash in the world outside of corporate campuses. Boingo is one company trying to offer a for-pay service for wireless connectivity in hotels, airports, and other public places across the country. For as little as $25/ month you can access the Internet anywhere with a “hotspot” or access point. Ironically, the San Francisco Airport, as close as it is to Silicon Valley, doesn’t have capability! There is also an altruistic movement afoot in major cities to offer free Internet service in public spaces such as parks and building lobbies to people who are Wi-Fi capable. Coffee shops are beginning to offer the service as an amenity to their patrons. Non-profit organizations are offering support and resources for companies, people and government organizations interested in participating in this free-wireless movement. Major commercial ventures, such as AT&T, are aiding groups such as NYC Wireless. For example, in sniffing out the hotspots (a technical term for searching out wireless access points) in the New York City area revealed 5,000 802.11b transmitters. But when they mapped the locations of these points there was a black hole in Harlem. So NYC Wireless started working with the parks service of New York to place transmitters in parks and public spaces for anyone to access, not just those on corporate campuses.

The future of commercial Wi-Fi is yet to be seen. Following the loss of the World Trade Center towers, Verizon worked hard to re-establish the lost service. But it was the ad hoc wireless networks via Wi-Fi in lower Manhattan that reestablished service and enabled companies to be connected quickly and efficiently. Commercial wireless service is in a sorry state. Metricom, which tried to offer the service, went bankrupt. Telco companies are ready to offer a wireless Internet connection at 128 Kbps, but that really isn’t an option for speeds sake. For a company to install a nationwide infrastructure to provide such a service would cost an estimated $1 billion. The only option is to share.

Groups around the country are encouraging the proliferation and sharing of network service. Groups like FreeNet.org provide resources and information for anyone interested-companies, individuals, or economic areas wanting to provide such an asset to people. Community groups are banding together to promote Wi-Fi networks. All across America, people with a non-dial-up connection to the Internet are connecting neighbors and areas together, overcoming various obstacles in deciding how to access the Internet when their location is out of an Internet Service Provider’s territory.

Disruptive Technology

It’s no surprise that this non-commercial upwelling in the use of Wi-Fi is bound to upset everyone from Telco companies to Microsoft’s .Net future. Wi-Fi is fast and cheap for anyone with the hardware and Internet technology. It works against everything associated with the Internet as a commercial venture, from Internet billing models to security proponents advocating full-disclosure. As we move closer to a wired world, technologies like this are bound to change the way we think about our resources.

A few links:

http://80211b.weblogger.com

www.nycwireless.net

www.freenetworks.org

www.boingo.com

www.joltage.com

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