February 22, 2001
The Web, Without Wires, Wherever
By GLENN FLEISHMAN
IT'S coming soon to an espresso bar near you.
And to the rival coffee shop across the street. Not to mention the
coin-operated laundry on the corner, the hotel on the next block and the
railroad station across town. The local airport may already have it.
Wireless high-speed Internet access, a longtime dream of the technophile
and business traveler, is finally arriving at hundreds of access points
public and private places across the United States. With a laptop
equipped with a wireless card, anyone within a few hundred feet or so of
one of these access points, or hot spots, can tap into a wireless
that is in turn connected to the Internet via a broadband connection.
user can then send e-mail or surf the Web at speeds in the megabit
usually for a monthly or single-use fee.
By late this year, industry experts say, the hundreds of hot spots will
become thousands as service providers and entrepreneurs install the
necessary equipment - generally, a small transceiver and a broadband
connection - in all major airport terminals, sports arenas and other
business and consumer sites. By sometime next year, one company expects
have access points in 5,000 Starbucks stores.
"Roaming mobile access is becoming a hot item," said Tim Bajarin,
of Creative Strategies, an industry consulting firm. Mr. Bajarin added
the services were particularly attractive to corporations who wanted
traveling staff to be able to keep in touch with the home office more
Some companies and colleges already have wireless local area networks
the same technology so Internet and intranet access is available from
anywhere within an office or around a campus. But the services for
professionals tend to be single access points covering one or more
for instance, or several meeting rooms in a hotel.
Some of these services may be free, run by volunteers intrigued by the
community-building prospects of wireless networking. Volunteer efforts
under way in several cities, including Seattle, Boston and San
But most access points are and will be commercial, run by companies that
will charge for the services - anywhere from a few dollars for a single
session to $50 or more per month for unlimited use of the system.
This new wireless access is about "giving you the ability to roam from
network to another and be blissfully ignorant" of the technical
intricacies, said Stephen Saltzman, general manager of Intel's wireless
local area network division. "It's the kind of thing that's such a
fundamental capability that it starts feeding on itself."
It's a vision of a seamless world of wireless access, where the business
traveler or cafe habitué can keep in touch via the Web just by walking
the right spot, turning on the laptop and opening a browser. Other
are envisioned as well. The technology has been shown to work even if
laptop is moving, so drive-by access from a car may be possible. Or gas
stations could have hot spots and offer "info fueling."
"At the same moment you're filling up your gas tank, why wouldn't you
up your in-box?" said Mark Goode, chief executive of MobileStar, a
in the field.
But there are a few potential stumbling blocks to such a vision. One is
prospect of competing standards. Right now, a wireless network protocol
with the decidedly unsexy name of I.E.E.E. 802.11b appears to be the
leader, in part because a slower version has been widely used in
corporations since the early 90's and Apple Computer used it when it
giving its models wireless capability in mid-1999. (Apple gave it a
But there are other standards, notably Bluetooth and HomeRF, that could
catch on as well. The field could become balkanized, creating both
compatibility and signal interference problems for users.
Jeff Groudan, the director for Compaq Computers' business portables
said that a single user might need two or three wireless standards to
connected while traveling from place to place.
But even if only one standard prevails, competition among providers may
create headaches for consumers. There are only a few truly national
providers, with several regional ones that hope to expand, so some
consolidation or other shaking out of the industry seems inevitable. And
the user who pays a monthly fee for access through one provider may find
that the provider's service is available at some airport lounges but not
others where another company's network is used.
Ultimately, roaming agreements like those between cell-phone providers
ease this problem.
"We've got to create an industry and stop spending money trying to kill
each other," said Richard Garnick, chief executive of Global Digital
a service provider focusing on airport terminals, "because we've got to
save some money to gather customers."
One effort to provide wireless access throughout airport terminals
than just in a lounge or two) has already foundered. Softnet, the parent
company of AerZone, which had contracts to establish access points in
Francisco and Denver's airports, halted AerZone's operations in
citing cost concerns. One estimate put the cost of putting wireless
throughout a big airport at up to $2 million.
For now, the leading companies using 802.11b, including MobileStar,
in Richardson, Tex., and WayPort, of Austin, Tex., are concentrating on
single-access-point service. Both companies have access points in hotel
meeting rooms and common areas and in premium membership-based airport
MobileStar, for example, has about 150 locations, including lounges at
three New York area airports. But the company has big plans, including
agreement with Starbucks to create access points in thousands of
shops within two years.
WayPort has made inroads into hotel chains, signing agreements with
and Four Seasons hotels, as well as the Meristar Hotels and Resorts
which includes some Hilton and Hyatt hotels. In hotels, WayPort runs
Ethernet access to each room and provides wireless access in the lobby
Phil Belanger, vice president for marketing at WayPort, said that his
company had installations at about 150 hotels and at the Austin,
Dallas-Fort Worth and Seattle-Tacoma airports. The company expects to
1,200 installations by the end of the year.
Two other companies, AirWave and Surf and Sip, only operate in
mostly at coffee shops and restaurants. Both companies plan to expand
other states. Surf and Sip turns some of its locations into instant
Internet cafes by providing a couple of wireless-enabled laptops that
be rented by the hour and a printer.
Rick Ehrenspiel, president of Surf and Sip, said that he looked for
points, like the intersection of Vallejo and Polk Streets in San
Francisco's Russian Hill neighborhood. Within a few hundred feet of that
spot are four coffee shops: Starbucks, Tully's, Peet's and Royal
Mr. Ehrenspiel placed his access point in a nearby bar to reach
in all four shops.
That illustrates another aspect of mobile wireless access. Because the
technology is based on radio transmissions (802.11b equipment operates
the 2.4-gigahertz range, the same as some cordless phones) it works
walls. So a Starbucks may be "lit up" by MobileStar, but if a competing
company has an access point nearby, it may reach customers at the
At some airports, travelers who for whatever reason cannot get into an
airline lounge may be able to get wireless access by just lingering
outside. During an interview with AirWave executives at Paragon, a San
Francisco restaurant that is part of their network, Avery More, the
company's chief executive, joined the conversation via instant messaging
while he was perched near an American Airlines' Admirals Club lounge at
Dallas-Fort Worth airport.
And access may not be limited just to the ground. Tenzing
firm in competition with Boeing and others to provide in-flight Internet
access, announced a test of 802.11b networking in conjunction with
Swedish telecommunications company, and the SAS airline. The tests are
intended to certify the protocol as safe for use, according to Tenzing's
marketing director, Laura Alikpala.
"As you're waiting for your flight, you can either work in the lounge or
any of the public places in the airport," Ms. Alikpala said, "and then
the same link when you get on the plane to access e-mail or our Web
The equipment to hook a laptop or handheld organizer into a wireless
has become inexpensive and ubiquitous in the last year, said Allan
business developer at Orinoco Systems, a Lucent Technologies division
manufactures wireless LAN, or local area network, cards. Most laptop
manufacturers have added or are about to add built-in support for
networking, and some laptops already come equipped with wireless LAN
Cards can also be purchased for $100 to $150. And some hand-held
will soon be able to use the same networks. Xircom is producing a
Handspring Visor module, which is scheduled to be available this spring.
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