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Watch That — Oops! —Wire
Lucent's Orinoco RG1000 lets PC users cast off their phone wires and still surf or network with impunity

I never met an electrical cable I didn't eventually trip over. Since I like to use my laptop computer on my couch, with a long cord snaking across the room to the nearest phone jack, I'm living dangerously. Some day, when I least expect it, I'll tangle with that cord and send my computer flying to an untimely demise. I could take comfort in knowing that others are in peril. Lots of people like to sit in front of the TV while handling e-mail or surfing the Web. And in Asia, where phone jacks are few and far between, I'm sure more than a few chefs risk garroting a family member because they want to check recipes online while they cook.

Apple Computer answered our plea for a safer home environment last year when it released the Airport, which provides a cordless connection to the Internet for iBook laptops. The PC world now has a rough equivalent: Lucent's Orinoco RG1000, a wireless base station for the home or small office. From some angles it bears an uncanny resemblance to a household clothing iron, whereas the Airport looks more like a hockey puck from outer space.

Lucent calls the RG1000 a "residential gateway," and it's a tempting solution to cable chaos. Not only can you access the Internet, the RG1000 theoretically permits wireless networking of multiple computers, remote printers and other peripherals, providing they are equipped with compatible transmitter/receivers (tranceivers). The base station can be placed almost anywhere. It uses radio waves for digital transmission, so signals can travel through walls. "People with cable [Internet] connections especially like it, because the modem is often near the TV and might be far away from where the computer is," says Brian See, Asia-Pacific business development manager for Lucent. We don't have peripherals at my house. But there is that laptop, and the couch beckons beguilingly.

Setting up the residential gateway appears simple enough. Connect the base station to wall outlets and slide an included transceiver into a PC card slot in your laptop. The whole package is supposed to be "plug and play," but like so many devices new to the market, this one didn't play well with Windows. After hours of futile attempts to get it to work — replete with an error message that was erroneously displayed, and a trip into the bowels of Windows to install a hidden driver — we got it up and running. Not the editorial "we." I had to beg See to make a house call before my PC was ready for untethered surfing.

Once set-up was accomplished, however, it worked like a breeze. To connect, you click an Orinoco icon on your Windows taskbar or simply open your browser. I was able to access the Web from any room in the house. Like the Airport, the RG1000 uses the 802.11b wireless transmission standard, meaning it can transmit data at rates of up to 11 megabits per second, far faster than ordinary Internet connections. Surfing by the pool is a possibility. You can wander up to 50 meters from the base station. Transmission speeds fall off at greater distances, but the RG1000 outperforms devices using the much-hyped "Bluetooth" wireless transmission technology. Bluetooth's range is only 10 meters and data rates are a comparatively stately one megabit per second. That may be okay for synching your Palm Pilot with your computer, but for transferring large amounts of data such as MP3 files, 802.11b is the standard of choice.

Lucent is pushing the RG1000 for small offices as well as homes, since it can wirelessly link multiple computers. IBM already makes a PC with built-in 802.11b capability, and others will follow. The "networked home" is not quite reality — printers and appliances aren't yet equipped for wireless — but the Orinoco is a good indication of where the industry is heading.

Being the first in your apartment block to own a wireless residential gateway is not cheap. The RG1000 kit costs $450. That includes one PC-card transceiver. You'll have to buy more of them if you want to hook up additional devices (Lucent plans to offer transceivers for about $200 that can be plugged into any computer or peripheral with a USB port). Is the wireless way worth it? See notes that networking a home or office by bashing plaster and stringing cable everywhere is far more expensive. Still, $450 is a lot to pay for the convenience of couch surfing. Then again, it's a lot less than the new laptop I'll have to buy if I continue to booby trap my home with phone cords.

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