Skip to comments.Wi-fi and the future of wireless
Posted on 01/05/2004 2:23:16 PM PST by Holly_P
America is getting "unplugged" faster than an MTV musician as the revolution in wireless communication picks up speed.
What started a century ago with Marconi's radio and became the now ubiquitous cellphone is now taking shape around a two-way radio technology called wi-fi (short for "wireless fidelity"). It promises to unplug more communications devices by making the Internet available just about everywhere and letting people talk to each other more easily than ever before.
The new wireless could transform not only the way we communicate but also how we pay for it. Some analysts think today's cellphone model - a private network of towers that charges for access - is looking a little dated in the face of "infrastructure-free" networks where devices would talk directly among themselves. Not everyone believes wi-fi will go that direction, and the technology faces big obstacles. But if it does reach critical mass, it could storm the cellphone industry with the same momentum that carried cheap IBM clones past Apple personal computers two decades ago.
Consumers will benefit no matter what. Competition will force down the price of wireless Internet access.
"The market will push us toward a wireless future," says David Reed, an adjunct professor at MIT's Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass., who is studying the future of wireless communications. And its arrival looks much more certain than that of the paperless society, which never materialized, he adds. "People love paper, but I can't find a single person who says that about wires."
Signs of the new wireless technologies abound. Consumers are setting up wireless local area networks (WLANs) in their homes. These allow multiple computers to hook up to one fast Internet connection or laptop users to connect from the comfort of the sofa or the back patio - anywhere in their house or yard. Some 20 percent of homes with such fast Internet connections (known as broadband) now have WLANs too.
Away from home, wi-fi access points, so-called hotspots that permit wireless connections to the Internet, are popping up everywhere: in bookstores, coffee shops, truck stops, marinas, and airports. Even a bench in a shopping mall or a public park may be a place to connect to e-mail or the Web. Limousines are offering wi-fi service for customers on the go, and within the next year, major airlines are expected to announce the availability of wi-fi connections during flights. Cerritos, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb, plans to become one big wi-fi hotspot by placing transmitters all over the town of 51,000 residents.
Think of a wi-fi hotspot as a miniature cellphone tower. A low-power radio transmitter connected to the Internet sends out a signal that reaches at best a few hundred feet. Any computer or personal digital assistant (PDA) equipped with an inexpensive receiver can hook up at broadband speeds. An ever-growing number of new laptop computers have wi-fi capability built in as a standard feature.
Explosive growth Estimates vary as to the number of hotspots in the world today, but everyone agrees the number is multiplying rapidly. In a conservative estimate, ABI, a technology think tank in Oyster Bay, N.Y., predicts worldwide hotspots will grow in the next five years from 28,500 to 208,000.
But much else about the future of wi-fi remains less clear, including who's going to pay for public hotspots installed outside the home. Right now, most of these require users to pay for access, either through a subscription (perhaps $30 to $40 per month) or on a one-time basis ($7 for 24 hours, for example). That model doesn't satisfy those who travel and don't want to run up a lot of charges to different providers. So companies setting up hotspots are now beginning to sign "roaming" agreements that let customers use hotspots owned by other providers.
Looking ahead, analysts say prices will drop because of brutal competition. Until then, it's the business traveler who's most likely to pay for public wireless access. That's one reason hotels look like the next big growth area for wi-fi service.
Hotels are an "interesting bellwether" of where wi-fi is headed, says John Yunker, a wireless-industry analyst at Pyramid Research in Cambridge, Mass. "They're cash-strapped, but they're going ahead with deployments because they have to. The guests are demanding it.... We expect all major hotel chains to have announced some degree of wi-fi deployment by the end of next year. And many already have."
Wi-fi for free? Pyramid also predicts that wi-fi will soon become a free amenity at many hotels (it already is at some restaurants).
Because wi-fi travels over public airwaves, security and privacy are concerns. "When I'm in Manhattan, I can stick my wi-fi-enabled PDA out the window, and I can tap into four or five access points that aren't secure to check my e-mail," says Ed Rerisi, ABI's research director. "People don't realize how vulnerable they are."
But issues like security, along with the problems of cost and identifying hotspot locations, aren't going to hold wi-fi back, analysts say. "I think all these problems have solutions and gradually over the next couple of years all of them will get solved," says Craig Mathias, a principal at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass. "The sky's the limit" for wi-fi.
Cellphone companies have their own plan for covering the world with high-speed Internet access through a technology called 3G. But the jury is out whether it's arriving too late to push aside wi-fi. Cellphone companies "could find themselves obsolete in a while," unless they find new ways to add value for customers, says Dr. Reed of the Media Lab. One cellular company, T-Mobile, is hedging by making a major investment in wi-fi hotspots.
As an alternative to wireless companies that build infrastructure and charge for access, the Media Lab is studying "viral communications," in which every laptop or other wi-fi-enabled device would cooperate to relay data. In this "infrastructure-free" network, the system could have great resiliency, Reed says. If one route of information was blocked, other radios would form another trail to send along the data.
Though the data might pass through many radios, security would actually be enhanced, he adds, because the route of the message would be unpredictable to hackers and because it would force the data to be encrypted. The intermediate radios wouldn't know the encryption key.
Even the question of powering up unplugged devices is solvable. Reed sees a time when they could operate "parasitically by living off the radio waves of things that happen to be plugged into the wall."
Others envision wi-fi transmitters embedded in every power strip in an office, making a whole company one big hotspot. "Who knows?" analyst Yunker says. Wi-fi is a disruptively inexpensive way to communicate "and it's hard for anything else to compete with that."
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Some of us do. 100% copper in my LAN
Dialup and DSL will likely be supplanted by 802.16a. It provides 70 megabits/sec at distances up to 30 miles. It solves the problem of loop loss over large distances from the central office.
802.11g will probably overtake 802.11b over time. The security issues with current 802.11x networks that run open or with weak WEP protocols will likely go away as more people adopt the WPA security stacks.
Exactly! And when I hear Earthlink promoting a 'faster' dialup, i just cringe.
They're mono units, so you'd need two on different freqs - plus you'd need another stereo amp in the back of the room and a means of controlling the volume. Very clunky.
I'd suggest you pull up the edges of the carpet and run the wires from your home theater receiver between the wall and the carpet tacking strip, then carefully put the carpet edges back down. I've done that in lots of houses.
Home theater demands a good receiver - and not TWO receivers. A different amp for the rears may introduce phasing problemos as well. Not a real "swuft" ideer.
A separate amp in the rear would introduce potential phase trouble and would operate at a fixed volume. Plus, the output for your sub (out of your Home Theater receiver) is high-Z low level. You need to have that sub within about 10 feet of the receiver. Try the carpet-tacking-strip ploy I outlined.
One further impediment to using the wireless units is that you individual channel outputs on your home theater receiver are speaker-level, whereas the inputs to the radio units and incompatible LINE-level.
FIND a way to run the wires!
I live a ways from town. When BellSouth installed my phone line last September, I asked the tech about DSL. He chuckled. I asked, "When will DSL be available here?" He said, "Never." I asked why not. He said, "This area's too sparsely populated. No way is BellSouth gonna pay to upgrade the nearest remote station. It would take years and years for them to break even."
We don't have cable here either. For the same reason.
I checked on internet via satellite. $80-90/month. Ouch! I love my fellow FReepers, but not that much :) And I've had people tell me internet via satellite sucks.
Bottom line: I'll be using 56K dialup for the foreseeable future.
And remember, there are millions of folks all across the country that are in the same boat as me.
We obviously need a taxpayer supported program to underwrite the cost of having cable, DSL and wi-fi available everywhere! Yeah, that's the ticket :)
That's too bad. I felt like that until they installed the cable modem. For months they would send direct mail pieces saying it was available and I would call and they would tell me, a few more months, etc. Believe me, when it arrived I was a happy camper. P.S. I didn't know the satellite was so expensive. That's without the porn channels?
Last February I requested a small, cheap mobile device that:
Back then, the hardware necessary to make this a practical reality wasn't cheap and it wasn't widely in use. Now it is. Many of the most popular PDAs (personal digital assistants), like my new Palm Tungsten C, provide Web browsers and high-bandwidth wi-fi Internet connectivity.
We have the hardware. We have the infrastructure -- the cities are becoming saturated with wi-fi hotspots, many of them free for public use, and robust Internet telephony networks have been in use for years.
And we have the client software -- but it hasn't been designed for the right devices. A handful of firms like Dialpad and Net2Phone already provide cheap PC-to-phone voice service. But none of them seem to have ported their client applications for use on PDAs.
What are these firms waiting for? For a very modest investment in resources, Dialpad and its competitors can make a very compelling offer: global telephony on the go for prices less than one-tenth what you pay for mobile or even land-line phone service.
Dialpad: I have my portable wi-fi telephone and I'm ready to pay you to use it. What are you waiting for?
It sucks less than 56k dialup for most things.
I use an iPAQ with WiFi and do "incidental" wardriving, I guess. Mostly I connect in hotel parking lots, but I have found a few individual open connections. I drive all day and use the connections to drop in here and our Houston Chapter forum just to keep up on he news.
My house has the phone wiring done with Cat5 cable. I was able to use 1 pair for telephone, 2 pairs for the LAN and the 4th pair for an in house telegraph so jmy son and I can send morse code to each other with telegraph keys.