Adam DuVander likes to surf the Internet from his laptop wherever he happens to be — at home, a coffee shop or a neighborhood park.
He has been able to do so in recent years, thanks to wireless hotspots set up by networking activists in Portland, Ore.
So when Portland announced it would try to blanket the entire city with similar Wi-Fi technology, the Web programmer and blogger got excited — until he tried using it.
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"For me, ubiquitous access means I don't have to base my life around wherever my office is," DuVander said. "I tried it out as soon as I could, and found that it wasn't for me. The quality of the connection is not up to my standards."
Blame physics and the use of a short-range technology designed for smaller quarters, not citywide deployments.
Simply put, signals don't travel far or penetrate building walls well.
That's fine for a coffee shop. The equipment is indoors, as are its users. That's also fine for a park. There are enough users concentrated there to justify installing a lot of wireless antennas.
But it wouldn't be economical to place an access point inside every home and on every street lamp.
Portland's contractor, MetroFi Inc., is putting roughly 25 access points per square mile, so that users would generally be no farther than 500 feet from the nearest one, said Logan Kleier, the city's manager for the Unwired Portland project.
Cutting that distance in half, to 250 feet, would require about four times as many access points, because they need to be installed in all four directions.
"The network cost gets completely out of whack," he said. "The business model breaks in its entirety."
Network operators, meanwhile, are recommending signal boosters for as much as $150 to get indoor coverage. Many people in Portland and elsewhere plan to stick with their existing DSL or cable provider instead.
An emerging technology called WiMax — promising much longer ranges — might be able to blanket a larger area more easily than Wi-Fi can.
Sprint Nextel Corp. (S) already has announced plans to offer WiMax service in several cities by next year, with initial deployments this year in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
But Wi-Fi still has its advantages. It's been around longer so the technology is stable and equipment relatively cheap.
And although Wi-Fi continues to evolve — an industry group will soon start certifying products under its emerging, faster "n" flavor — devices made tomorrow will likely work with networks built today.
On the network side, some equipment can be upgraded by pushing new software remotely, said Esme Vos, an expert on municipal Wi-Fi systems.
Regardless of the specific wireless technology, though, wired services remain a better choice over wireless for many basic needs.
Wired networks are generally faster and have fewer security risks. Prices for DSL, in particular, have dropped.
Wireless networks are good as backups during emergencies and away from home, but "it's very hard to have a wireless network compete as a primary connection," said Dave Burstein, editor of the industry newsletter DSL Prime. "Where you have a choice, DSL or cable compared to wireless, you are going to go for DSL or cable unless it's ridiculously overpriced."