Get ready to tune in to wireless Net
Techs betting on cable-free future
By Jeordan Legon
(CNN) -- If it's not already there, it's probably coming soon to a local coffee shop, your favorite airport, the neighborhood park, a McDonald's around the corner and maybe your home.
Once the pride of computer geeks, wireless Internet access, known as WiFi, is one of the hottest technologies in years, catching on with millions of computer users and promising to change the way people get connected, industry analysts say.
Short for wireless fidelity, WiFi does away with cables dangling from the back of PCs by broadcasting Internet connections via radio waves. Then you just tune in from your computer.
This week, a slew of wireless networking initiatives are being announced aimed to make WiFi even more ubiquitous, building momentum by making it faster to connect and easier to find WiFi-enabled spots.
"We are unwiring the computer world," Mike Splinter, Intel head of sales and marketing, said Wednesday during a news conference at CeBIT, the world's largest annual electronics show. "Pervasive (WiFi access) is our goal from work to home. We want to move computing from the desk to the couch."
Chip giant backs wireless
Intel threw its weight behind WiFi on Wednesday, promising to outfit millions of laptops with Centrino chips, which contain a built-in WiFi transceiver and have a longer battery life. The move is expected to make wireless chips the standard for laptops, industry analysts say.
Earlier in the week, Intel also announced millions more in funding for firms that make WiFi technology, part of a $150 million investment plan to fuel growth of the industry.
And following the lead of Starbucks, which already wired 2,000 coffee shops with WiFi, McDonald's announced this week that by year's end it expects to offer one hour of free high-speed wireless access to anyone who buys a combination meal at 300 restaurants in three U.S. cities.
As if that wasn't enough, the Wi-Fi Alliance also jumped into the act Wednesday by promoting the launch of a Web site (www.wi-fizone.org) where users can search a database of about 1,600 hotels, airports, restaurants and other wireless access points in 23 countries.
WiFi "has come a long way," said Gemma Paulo, a networking analyst at In-Stat/MDR. "It's grown more than anyone expected. ... A lot of that growth has been fueled by people who want to put it in their home so they can sit in front of their TV and use their laptop."
By 2006, research firm Gartner expects 99 million WiFi users and 89,000 public WiFi access points around the world. But before it can get there, connections have to be made cheaper and pricing plans less complex.
The industry is still in its early days, said Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance, whose 207 member companies promote the use of the technology.
Pricing difficult to follow
No one is sure how to price WiFi service and some community-minded groups believe the service should be free, Eaton said. Service providers don't have a clear road to profitability and are trying out business models. Pricing can range from unlimited-use plans that cost $30 to $70 a month to per-minute charges at some hotels that can run about $15 an hour or more.
And if you have an unlimited use plan, you can only use it at spots that are wired by your service provider. The concept of "roaming" -- which allows cell phone users to move around the country without having to change providers or pay additional fees -- has yet to make it to WiFi.
"Just like in the early days of the cell phone market, there's a lot of experimentation right now," Eaton said.
Industry watcher Paulo said the move by the Wi-Fi Alliance to provide a list of wired spots is a good first move toward making pricing and service available more uniformly.
"The next step is the really big step to get the roaming process started between the providers," she said.
Better security promised
The other big challenge, Eaton said, is improving WiFi security. Right now, it's relatively easy to hack into WiFi connections. A new security standard, expected to be approved later this year, will make WiFi much more secure, which should help increase the number of businesses using connections, Eaton said.
A new WiFi standard 802.11g also is waiting to be certified this year, which will increase the amount of data that can be transmitted and make it much easier to download multimedia content through the wireless connections, Eaton added.
With WiFi connection kit prices dropping under $100 and providers such as Cometa Networks promising to add thousands of access points in the coming years, wireless stands ready to replace wires as the standard for going online, said Phil Belanger, vice president of Vivato, a manufacturer of WiFi switches which recently received funding from Intel.
Vivato's big-screen size switches promise to increase the range of WiFi connections inside offices, which should prevent having to install numerous wireless access points, Belanger said.
"We're an example of the second wave of WiFi," he said. "The notion of taking your work with you will now be practical."