TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Wireless Internet

TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Wireless Internet - The word wireless, echoing the days when radio was the cat's whiskers and there were just two channels on the telly, is about to come into geekspeak fashion again. But this time round it relates to surfing the web rather than listening to the Light Programme. Wireless internet - often known as WiFi - uses low-power radio signals to connect computers to the net with no messy wires. Already popular in the US, WiFi is fast - up to 11Mbps (20 times faster than regular broadband) - easy to use (all that your laptop needs to go wireless is a pounds 60 network card), and it's coming to a coffee bar near you.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The word wireless, echoing the days when radio was the cat's whiskers and there were just two channels on the telly, is about to come into geekspeak fashion again. But this time round it relates to surfing the web rather than listening to the Light Programme. Wireless internet - often known as WiFi - uses low-power radio signals to connect computers to the net with no messy wires. Already popular in the US, WiFi is fast - up to 11Mbps (20 times faster than regular broadband) - easy to use (all that your laptop needs to go wireless is a pounds 60 network card), and it's coming to a coffee bar near you.

Thanks to a deal with T-Mobile, Starbucks is fitting WiFi hubs (called hotspots) in many of its UK outlets this year, and a company called Megabeam is already operating hotspots in railway stations, airport lounges and hotels up and down the country.

THE CHALLENGE Modern computing is about networking - the number and variety of different things your PC is connected to (internet, intranet, scanner, printer, PDA, MP3 player, fridge, washing machine ...). But all this connectivity creates enough spaghetti to keep The Sopranos in meatballs for another series. No wonder, then, that the idea of wireless networking has taken off. Here in Europe, we were promised a couple of years ago that the 3G mobile phone network would change our lives by making go-anywhere computing a reality. Sadly, the truth fell short of the hype: 3G availability and coverage is poor, prices are high and the telcos that shelled out a total of pounds 22.5 billion on licences a few years ago are resigned to a very long wait before they get their money back.

THE SOLUTION Meanwhile, there's WiFi. Using a cheap and simple standard called 802.11b, a small radio transceiver creates a local zone within which every device with a wireless card can talk to the others, using a minimum of cables. This area - the hotspot - is usually about 100m in diameter. Intended for office wireless networking, it has taken off on the High Street too - buy a McDonald's extra-value meal for a couple of dollars in Manhattan and you get an hour's wirefree surfing thrown in. In Britain, Starbucks has been charging rather more - up to a fiver an hour - but this is set to come down as the number of stores with hotspots increases.

WiFi isn't perfect. It's considerably less secure than Bluetooth (a rival wireless technology from Europe which operates only within a 10m radius); you need accounts with numerous providers to use all the available hotspots; and it eats up battery power, so you may find yourself high and dry halfway through a vital e-mail. But it's here, it's cheap and it works - if you can face the prospect of drinking Starbucks coffee every time you want to go online.

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