TCS Daily

The Mobile Web

By Edward B. Driscoll - July 17, 2002 12:00 AM

Millions of people already telecommute from home. But if people like Arturo Pereyra, general manager of WiFi Metro, Inc. have their way, they soon can telecommute -- or do homework, chat online, send e-mail, or about anything else you can do on a computer -- not just from home but everywhere they go. They'll be able to take advantage of what Ray Oldenburg once described as "a Third Place" -- not the home or office, but a place that combines the best features and the familiarity of both locations, and allows anyone with a properly equipped laptop to have a portable office, complete with high-speed Internet access.

WiFi Metro is at the leading edge of communications revolution, made possible by unlicensed scrap spectrum used in the past for cordless phones and microwave ovens. Using this spectrum, WiFi Metro already has setup two "hot zones" of wireless Internet connectivity. The first is in Palo Alto, Calif., along six blocks of University Avenue, where a combination of upscale stores and fancy eateries cater to both the venture capitalists and Stanford University students who inhabit the area. The second (with coverage of equal distance) is in nearby downtown San Jose.

In these zones, anybody with a personal computer (PC), laptop or personal digital assistant (PDA) equipped with a wireless Ethernet 802.11b card, or a built in transmitter, can access the Internet anywhere, making homework, telecommuting, e-mail and instant messaging fun and easy. You can even access the Net in your car. (Though friends don't let friends drive and use laptops at the same time. Trust me on this one.)

What is 802.11b?

802.11b is the wireless Ethernet standard created by the IEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). It uses the 2.4 GHz frequency range of the broadcast spectrum in which to operate and has quickly risen to be the de facto wireless Internet standard of choice, surpassing wireless application protocol (WAP), 3G (for third generation wireless) and BluetoothTM. Its great flexibility allows for streaming wireless broadband data at speeds of up to 11 megabytes a second. That soon could be up to 54 megs a second, when products using the 802.11a standard spectrum at about 5GHz start rolling out.

However, until there's a pressing need for very fat bandwidth, or the 2.4 GHz band that 802.11b shares with numerous other electronic devices becomes too overloaded, 802.11b is likely to be the preferred standard in public locations for some time to come. Why? Because 802.11b has greater range than 802.11a, providing increased flexibility for the user, and easier installations for the service provider.

Both versions of 802.11 can be used with just about any laptop with a PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory International Association) slot, and many PDAs. Unlike with WAP and 3G, you don't have to view the Internet on a tiny little cell phone screen. And 802.11b has far more range than BluetoothTM -- providing 11 Mbps speeds on average at 75 feet from a transmitting source that slows down to 1 Mbps at a maximum distance of about 1,500 feet, more than a quarter mile, compared to the 100 feet or so of BluetoothTM transmission distances. (BluetoothTM still may have a very strong application in fixed devices, such as Internet-enabled appliances or wireless connections from PCs to printers, for example).
802.11b's flexibility, reliability and "retrofitability" also makes it an extremely popular choice for home networking, quickly surpassing such alternatives to a hardwired local area network (LAN) as power and phone line networking. And it has the key benefit of making it possible to go from the home to the office to "the third place" and back again with one laptop equipped with an 802.11b card.

802.11b Over Large Distances

And 802.11 is moving beyond the security of home, office and "third place" markets, stretching into larger scale applications. Slowly and surely, in addition to the Starbucks and other coffeehouses as well as hotels and airports that have Internet access via 802.11, whole city blocks, and even small towns are gaining a wireless option as well. Besides WiFi Metro's efforts in Silicon Valley, is using 802.11 to provide similar coverage to small towns in Alaska, connecting customers to a satellite uplink for their Internet coverage. And NTT has recently announced plans to test wide scale 802.11 coverage in a significant area of Tokyo.

These efforts capitalize on two tracks of pioneering work. First, many corporations and universities have provided 802.11 to their facilities, sometimes creating college or office campus-wide networks. Secondly, the numerous ad-hoc efforts by anarchistic-appearing geeks, who were actually eager to join forces to promote and exploit a new technology, have placed strong 802.11 transmitters and wireless repeaters over large distances, providing wireless Internet access to areas such as San Francisco, Seattle and Boston.

Because they frequently rely on a single shared cable modem or DSL connection to provide their Internet access, these DIY versions are giving fits to Internet Service Providers (ISPs). A recent MSNBC article quoted AT&T Broadband's Sarah Eder as saying: "It constitutes a theft of service per our user agreement." Though, FCC Chairman Michael Powell responded, "I don't think it's stealing by any definition of law at the moment. The truth is, it's an unintended use."

The fact is that although Powell is right that it's not theft in a regulatory or criminal sense-the bandwidths in question being very appropriately unregulated; Eder is also right that at a certain point, the bandwidth pirates could be held civilly liable for either their unearned profits, or ATT's potential loss of profits.

Keeping the Growth Growing

There are several other challenges that must be overcome for 802.11 to continue to grow in popularity. There needs to be either the equivalent of the roaming services that allow a cell phone to be used across the country, or one 802.11 provider needs to step up to be the next AOL or AT&T to provide national, universal coverage. Currently, the typical business user of 802.11 who travels has to have separate accounts and pay for three to five different wireless providers to get anywhere near reasonable coverage while traveling.

Additionally, more laptops will have to have some version of the 802.11 standard built-in, and the interface itself may need to be simplified, along with an automatic searching function to let users know which coverage is available at a particular location (a feature some Apple laptops are already providing). As things stand now, although I've been able to connect my Windows-based laptop almost everywhere I've tried, my wife has ended up calling me to help her log on when she's clearly had signal, but couldn't figure out the needed settings.

Which ties in with the other current problem of 802.11: lack of physical customer support in locations that provide the service. Numerous locations have simply set up a transmitter and not done much sales training to inform customers of the service, which is a further problem when the provider of the service isn't known ahead of time. Who do you ask at an airport about 802.11? And when I first called my local Starbucks to enquire about 802.11 service, the clerk who answered the phone swore they didn't have coverage, and yet I was happily surfing the Internet and sipping a Caramel Macchiato from that very same coffeehouse 15 minutes later.

802.11 has some teething pains to overcome, but it's a technology that's both here now, and has great potential for the future. Soon the World Wide Web may not only be global, but entirely mobile as well.



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