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Published: Saturday, 6/15/2002

Tapping into the Internet without wires

Get familiar with “Wi-Fi” and “802.11b.”

Those bland terms refer to an exciting new way to access high-speed Internet connections without cables, cords, or outlets in places never before possible.

Wi-Fi technology allows laptop users, for instance, to “sniff-out” and connect to wireless computer networks, or “hot spots,” in a variety places.

Like radio waves, wireless network signals penetrate the walls in airports, hotel rooms, office buildings, and other places. So go ahead, connect to a network and check e-mail at the airport boarding gate, or download multi-megabyte files in an instant from a hotel or coffee shop.

With Wi-Fi, home users can set up inexpensive wireless networks that share an Internet connection between computers in different rooms.

Everything you need to tap into Wi-Fi networks, or start your own, is available right now. The hardware and software can easily be installed on existing desktops and laptops.

Wi-Fi is still in its infancy, used by barely 2 million people worldwide. Only a few thousand Wi-Fi networks are available for users to connect with in airports, hotels, coffee shops, and other places. But experts predict an unprecedented growth spurt, with 15,000 networks in operation by 2004, and 45 million laptop computers equipped to use them.

Several factors are fueling the boom.

The Microsoft Corp., for instance, is adding features to its Windows operating system that will alert computer users when they encounter a Wi-Fi network. Computer manufacturers also are putting Wi-Fi hardware into new laptops and hand-held units.

Behind it all, of course, is the public demand for more convenient high-speed Internet service and constant e-mail access. As Wi-Fi's popularity grows, consumers shopping for a new PC may be checking the ads to for those magic words “Wi-Fi capable” - equipped for Wi-Fi - before buying.

Wi-Fi is “Wireless-Fidelity,” the registered trademark for a new wireless type of Ethernet technology. It was coined by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, an industry group that developed the official standard, known as “802.11b,” defining Wi-Fi.

Ethernet is the most widely used technology for linking computers together into local area networks, or LANs. As the name suggests, LANs connect computers that are close together, usually in the same building. Wide area networks, or WANs, connect computers that may be miles apart.

How can you use Wi-Fi?

One way involves setting up a Wi-Fi network, which can be as small as two computers in a home or involve an entire office.

A Wi-Fi network begins with a high-speed Internet connection via a cable modem or DSL telephone line.

Plug the cable or DSL modem into a Wi-Fi “base station.” That's a special radio, available from computer outlets for less than $200, that provides two-way sharing of the connection.

Each computer on the network must have an antenna and software to detect and use the connection. Cost: About $60. In a laptop, the antenna is a “card” that slips into one of those “PCMCIA” slots in the computer's side. In a desktop, it connects to a USB port.

Another way: Buy the antenna and software, and connect to free or commercial Wi-Fi networks in offices, airports, hotels, and other places.

Consumers also can buy Wi-Fi service from VoiceStream Wireless, Boingo, and other firms that have set up networks in public places. Search the Internet for details on those and other companies that offer Wi-Fi services.

A search also will bring plenty more general information on Wi-Fi technology. It's worth a read.



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