Techies Take to Wireless Web

For millions of Americans, summertime surfing is synonymous with the beaches. However, many tech-savvy Americans will take Web-surfing where it has never gone before — outside.

Todd Davis is one of those netizens. Thanks to a technology called WiFi or, in technical parlance, 802.11b, he replaced the clumsy cables of his home computer network with a wireless network. Instead of winding through wires, his digital information will zip through the ether.

"I love to enjoy the weather, go out on the back deck and use the Web," said Davis, a senior technical consultant who has a wireless network running between eight computers in his home on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. "Often, I even work out there as well."

In such a network, each computer is outfitted with a wireless card, a board which is inserted into a desktop PC or cartridge slid into a laptop's PCMCIA slot. These allow the computers to communicate with an access point, a transceiver that acts as the center point of the network, making sure all computers within range (typically 300 feet) can talk to each other. All the information is transmitted via a radio signal.

It is the plunging price of wireless cards and access points that is driving WiFi's growth. Wireless cards from companies like LinkSys, Cisco, NetGear and Orinoco can be found for about $90, and an access point can be picked up for about $150.

Doug Sidnam has a wireless network that stretches from his study on one side of his Long Island ranch to his kids' rooms on the other side. And, because wireless networks offer speeds that outstrip all but the very fastest Internet connections, he experiences speeds comparable to wired connections. 

Thus far, he has had no problems. "It works great for run-of-the-mill use," Sidnam said.

Davis agreed, saying that although he sometimes receives interference with other 2.4 MHz signals like cordless phones, it's "not nearly as bad as the inconvenience of using wires."

WiFi, however, is not limited to living rooms and backyard decks. City dwellers are finding more expansive uses for the technology as well.

Organizations have sprung up in cities across America — HoustonWireless in Texas, San Francisco's BAWUG (Bay Area Wireless Users Group) and Portland, Oregon's PersonalTelco among them — to try to blanket urban areas with wireless Web access.

In fact, you could take a seat in Portland's Pioneer Square and link up with a wireless connection. Parts of Houston's Downtown Historic District also boast connections. Starbucks has even gotten into the game, with plans to offer wireless access in its coffee houses — although it will charge a fee.

In New York City, NYCWireless aspires to provide "free wireless Internet service using wireless technology to mobile users in public spaces." The organization boasts 65 active nodes, or places where wireless networks are open to the public, each of which is operated by a residential or commercial volunteer.

According to NYCWireless' Jacob Farkas, commercial volunteers are drawn to NYCWireless because it is a more attractive option than offering a pay-for-use wireless network in their establishments. 

"People won't use pay networks. They'll just wait five minutes until they get home to check their e-mail," Farkas said. "[Free access] draws people into shops, generating more traffic."

Other groups in New York are also interested in WiFi. According to Jerome Barth, the coordinating supervisor for midtown Manhattan's Bryant Park, there are plans to "cover the entirety of Bryant Park" with free wireless Web access.

Not all public wireless Web access is intentional, though. Signal pirates can use software like Net Stumbler to "sniff out" available networks that "bleed" into public spaces. Then, if the network is not sufficiently secure, they can piggyback onto the Internet — or into someone's computer. Implementing sufficient protocols can minimize this threat, but it is still not as secure as a wire-based network

There are also hiccups in underground movements to spread WiFi access. Not all Internet Service Providers support broadband sharing — many explicitly forbid it in their user agreements. NYCWireless tries to limit such problems by steering volunteers to companies that allow sharing — they even convinced one local ISP "to change its policy to allow for wireless sharing," Farkas said.

Despite such concerns, WiFi technology is sure to see a surge in users as surfers normally chained to wired connections stray outside with laptops under their arms and Web dreams in their heads.

"I just put it in this winter, but I plan on using it [outside] a lot this summer," Sidnam chuckled.