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What is Wi-Fi all about

by Brandon Purcell - appeared in April 2003 edition of CSRA For-Sale-by-Owner Magazine

A new technology is taking the world by storm and popping up in some unlikely places. Whether you have heard of it or not Wi-Fi is here to stay. You may ask, what is Wi-Fi? Wi-Fi, or Wireless Fidelity, is freedom: it allows you to connect to the Internet from your couch at home, a bed in a hotel room or a conference room at work without wires. How? Wi-Fi is a wireless technology like a cell phone. Wi-Fi enabled computers send and receive data indoors and out; anywhere within the range of a base station. And the best thing of all, it's fast. In fact, it's several times faster than the fastest cable modem connection. Imagine working on your laptop or checking e-mail from anywhere in your home. Imagine being able to connect to your office network from an airport or coffee shop. Imagine retrieving files or presentations from the corporate network, cruising the Internet or sending instant messages to co-workersand doing it all from a conference room or the company cafeteria. A Wi-Fi network can connect a family's computers together to share such hardware and software resources as printers and the Internet. That means everyone in the family can share stored files, photos and documents and print them out on a single printer attached to one desktop computerall without unsightly cables running throughout the home. Imagine being able to move your entire office without losing your investment in networking installs, or to add new staff, all without moving cables or installing complicated hubs and routers. That is Wi-Fi. It is also inexpensive; if you have a cable modem or DSL connection at home you can add a wireless access point for under $100. Each computer will need wireless card with a cost around $60 each, unless you purchase a new computer with integrated Wi-Fi.

It's powerful. Wi-Fi networks use radio technologies called IEEE 802.11b, 802.11a or 802.11g to provide secure, reliable, fast wireless connectivity. A Wi-Fi network can be used to connect computers to each other, to the Internet, and to wired networks. Wi-Fi networks operate in the unlicensed 2.4 and 5 GHz radio bands, with an 11 Mbps (802.11b) or 54 Mbps (802.11a, 802.11g) data rate or with products that contain both bands (dual band). The most used standard in homes, office and public places is 802.11b. The latest emerging standard, 802.11g uses the same 2.4 Ghz frequency of 802.11b but provided 54Mbps, nearly 5 times the speed of 802.11b. 802.11g not only offers much better throughput it also offers backwards compatibility with 802.11b making it the best choice for new users buying into the Wi-Fi market.

Public hot spots with Wi-Fi access are popping up in busy public places like coffee shops, hotels, airport lounges and other locations where large crowds gather. This may be the fastest-growing segment of Wi-Fi service, as more and more travelers and mobile professionals clamor for fast and secure Internet access wherever they are. Soon, Wi-Fi networks will be found in urban areas providing coverage throughout the central city, or even lining major highways, enabling travelers access anywhere they can pull over and stop. Wi-Fi companies Boingo Wireless Inc. and Wayport Inc. offer Wi-Fi in hundreds of hotels and airports. T-Mobile USA Inc., offers paid Wi-Fi services in about 1,800 Starbucks coffeehouses and is expanding its presence in airport lounges and into Border bookstores. Even McDonalds is jumping on the bandwagon offering Wi-Fi in several of its major metropolitan locations. Truck stops are even on the list, Columbia Advanced Wireless (CAW) has plans to offer high speed wireless Internet access at more than 1,000 truck stops throughout the country. According to studies by CAW, more than 25 percent of the three million truck drivers in the U.S. carry laptops. CAW will deploy 802.11b or Wi-Fi hotspots at selected truck stops and offer prepaid access cards that act like prepaid calling cards.

The only short-term roadblock is that only 10% of current computers are equipped with wireless access capabilities. According to the market research firm International Data Corp that number is expected to leap to 91% by 2005. Intel is heavily marketing its Centrino processor for mobile computers, which includes built-in Wi-Fi capabilities so you do not have to buy an external wireless card. Companies such as Dell are making the push to include Wi-Fi capabilities in every laptop they sell. Many speculate that by 2005 every new mobile system sold will have Wi-Fi capabilities. This opens up a huge market for selling access to the Internet through Wi-Fi hot spots. Some entrepreneurs say the potential market includes apartment buildings and small office buildings. A small investment can be made to put a wireless infrastructure in place in apartments and office buildings. The service could be sold to end-users for approximately $30 making it easy to compete with cable modem and DSL connections. Since each office or apartment does not have to be wired individually the install time and cost of infrastructure is less compared with a wired installation.

Wi-Fi offers a compelling feature set for both businesses and homeowners. The adoption of Wi-Fi is growing rapidly as restaurants, hotels and other businesses find ways to use the service to attract customers. If you do not have Wi-Fi access today, put it on your short list of upgrades or make it part of your next computer purchase.