The Internet's next big step
How close is wireless broadband for the average customer?
By Michael Ludden
(CNN) -- The Internet is about to take its next big leap. Imagine being instantly connected anytime you opened the lid of your laptop, anywhere.
WiMAX, the high-powered technology that promises to bring true mobility to the Web, is just around the corner.
It is a step beyond Wi-Fi, the wireless technology already being installed on many laptop computers today.
Putting that kind of capability inside the computer, so the buyer doesn't have to worry about it, is a big part of the puzzle that determines when a new technology reaches widespread acceptance in the market. That -- and price.
Make things easy and cheap, and the customers will come. At least that's what wireless technology companies are hoping for.
Not so long ago, most computer buyers took for granted that their new machine would come with a dial-up modem installed. In those days, you typically could download 1 megabyte in about five minutes, depending on the speed of your connection.
With Wi-Fi, you might find yourself downloading up to 1 megabyte in less than ten seconds as you lounge by the pool.
The next step
WiMAX will offer even higher speeds over even larger areas. Your super-powered laptop could have the coverage of a cell phone.
Leon Stoltz can't wait for the day true mobility arrives. The owner of Atlanta-based PotatoFinger Snack Foods, Stoltz already uses wireless but wants broader coverage.
"I am very excited about that. I would love to be able to connect anywhere and not have all those cables lying around."
Stoltz is online all the time. He's installing wireless in his new home. He has it at both of his beach properties. He goes wireless when he stops for coffee at Starbucks.
His is one of an estimated 23 million households in North America today with a broadband connection. Forrester Research predicts that number will triple over the next five years.
Clearly, consumers want speed. And there is general agreement that many customers will gravitate toward wireless, as Stoltz has. It works just like radio, with an antenna that creates a zone, or hot spot, where connections can occur without cables.
Public hot spots can be found in airports, hotels and coffee shops. The Yankee Group technology research firm predicts there will be 72,000 hot spots in the United States by 2007, up from 12,000 in 2003.
They are relatively easy to find. Sites like JiWire.com can search locations and provide maps to hot spots based on street addresses or ZIP codes.
But true mobility is another question. Although the typical Wi-Fi hot spot covers several hundred feet, WiMAX will extend those zones for miles. WiMAX may be the doorway that allows users to move seamlessly across the country. At that point, the Internet will become truly portable.
An industry group is currently developing protocols and standards for WiMAX. Intel Corp., which makes the microprocessors that power most personal computers, plans to incorporate WiMAX into laptop chips in 2006. That will create a big incentive for Internet service providers to put the networks in place to support WiMAX
Going beyond Wi-Fi, WiMax will offer higher connection and download speeds over larger coverage areas.
And when lots of customers start using the same technology, wireless broadband will become more affordable, says Jim Johnson, vice president and general manager of Intel's Wireless Networking Group.
At that point, he expects WiMAX to take off.
"People really like to take their computers with them; it's that simple," he says. "You carry your cell phone with you everywhere ... we think there's a pent-up demand."
For the time being, Wi-Fi is the best thing out there. There are a variety of providers across the country. That means a business traveler who wants to get connected at every stop on their journey may have to pay a separate fee each time they connect.
What about price?
Prices vary widely, depending upon your provider and what kind of service you want. Some wireless users today, particularly corporate customers, are paying a relatively steep price. But the cost is becoming more affordable. And providers are hedging their bets by offering a variety of options.
In one large-scale trial, the Internet service provider EarthLink, for instance, is offering wireless broadband through a northern California service provider for $21.95 per month for a connection that is 10 times as fast as dial-up -- for roughly the same price.
"People really like to take their computers with them; it's that simple. You carry your cell phone with you everywhere ... we think there's a pent-up demand.
For a little more, $29.95 a month, customers can get a connection that is 30 times as fast.
"What we concentrate on," says Steve Howe, EarthLink's vice president for corporate strategy, "is connecting people however they want to be connected. We'll see how the market evolves."
Howe predicts a growing demand for Wi-Fi in the home market, where more customers want a wireless network to connect multiple computers in the home.
But, though wireless is much less expensive to provide than dial-up because there are no cables to install, it still will come at a price, Howe says.
"Plenty of people have taken a run at free Internet," he says, "and the bone pile is pretty high."
Wi-Fi, Howe says, was built for wireless home networking. WiMAX will combine mobility with that capability, bringing a new evolution he calls "terribly exciting."
"When you add on that mobile component," he says, "it will be so easy."