December 12, 2002 The Wi-Fi Boom By ADAM BAER
ON a brisk autumn day in Portland, Ore., Paul van Veen was soaking up some sun as he logged on to the Internet – from a spot in bustling Pioneer Courthouse Square. Mr. van Veen was looking for a job, and he was surfing the Web over a free wireless connection.
These days, Pioneer Courthouse Square is but one of some 140 public spots across Portland with free Internet access using a high-speed wireless technology known as Wi-Fi. The network of such Wi-Fi “hot spots” throughout the city was developed by Personal Telco, a grass-roots, nonprofit group devoted to blanketing the city with free access points.
Portland and Personal Telco are just part of a growing national trend. There are community groups promoting public Wi-Fi access in nearly every large American city, from NYCwireless, which “unwired” Bryant Park and Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, to KC Wireless in the Kansas City area. They have been joined by independent cafes and restaurants, apartment houses and community centers across the country that view free, easy access to the Internet as a draw for customers.
At the same time, subscription services and pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi hot spots are springing up in cafes, bookstores, hotels and airports, put in by companies like T-Mobile and smaller, start-up competitors like Boingo Wireless and Wayport. Last week, Cometa Networks, a new company backed by Intel, AT&T and I.B.M., said it planned to put a network of thousands of wireless access points across a huge swath of the nation by 2004. The result is a growing array of options for Wi-Fi users and the emergence of a mobile wireless culture that spans business travelers, teachers and students, people relaxing in coffee shops and even moviegoers waiting for the show.
All that is needed for laptop users to wander with Wi-Fi (the name is short for “wireless fidelity”) is a piece of hardware called a Wi-Fi card – perhaps a $100 investment – and where the access is not free, a one-time or longer-term service provider. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most users are male, under 40 and comfortable with technology.
The technology is, however, becoming more accessible. People who use paid hot spots like those offered by Wise Zone, Wayport and T-Mobile simply open their browsers to log on. Users of free city networks like NYCwireless are asked to agree to the network’s “acceptable use” policy, and if they do, they are on the Internet for six free hours until they have to sign on again.
Wi-Fi is also changing the way that people – at least some young, technologically adept people – go about their work. In Philadelphia, Yvonne Jones, a 33-year-old freelance copywriter, moved her base of operations to a Starbucks about a month ago and said she quickly became “a thousand times” more productive than she was when working at home. “It’s not your house, and you are there for a specific purpose, so the ‘distractions’ aren’t that distracting,” she said.
Frank Bonomo, who is between apartments and living with his parents on Long Island after losing his job at a dot-com, spends nearly every workday at a Starbucks in Greenwich Village. Mr. Bonomo, 24, is building a freelance practice as a Web producer, managing online advertising and message boards for design firms. He uses an account with T-Mobile to stay in touch with his clients by e-mail and instant messaging. “I commute here from the Island so I can be close to the offices of my three to four regular clients,” he said.
Mr. van Veen, who is looking for work as a wireless systems engineering manager, said he was using the public Wi-Fi hot spot in Portland to research a “hot job lead” because the connection was so much faster than his home connection. “At home, you generally use a standard phone line,” he said. “This downloads at 200 kilobytes a second, which is just lightning quick.”
Actually, under ideal conditions, Wi-Fi offers even greater speeds – 11 megabits per second, exceeding those typically achieved by high-speed home connections through cable modems or digital subscriber lines. Connection speeds slow, however, as a user gets farther from the source of the signal, which has a range of about 300 feet.
Ryan Palmer, a Portland-based consultant who studies human-computer interactions, said public wireless access had allowed him to be more efficient and enjoy himself at the same time. Mr. Palmer, 27, was on a business trip to Austin and wanted to sample the authentic Texas barbecue that he kept hearing about, but he also had some work to finish. He was able to do both at Green Mesquite BBQ, a restaurant with a recently installed free Wi-Fi access point.
“It’s nice to surf the Web and enjoy some good food,” he said, adding that the Internet connection at his hotel was so slow it was “painful.” He said: “I feel empowered. I’m not a stranger in a strange land anymore.”
It took Mr. Palmer 15 minutes of fiddling with the settings on his laptop to get a connection at the restaurant. “I had to play around a little bit,” he said. “I’m still not confident that someone could walk in off the street and do it.”
Not everyone can. Jodi Avant, 41, who is studying for teacher certification at the University of Texas at Austin, uses wireless frequently on campus, where it is widely available. As part of her program, she had to buy an Apple iBook with a wireless card to do schoolwork and communicate with teachers and other students.
She tried and failed to log on to the free Wi-Fi hot spot at a Schlotzsky’s Deli near the campus. “I brought it here, set it up and played around with it for half an hour,” she said. But she did not know what settings she needed and there was no help available in the restaurant.
Ms. Avant, who lives near Schlotzsky’s, visits the restaurant with her children every Saturday. They stay about an hour and use the wireless Internet terminals provided by the restaurant. She checks her e-mail while her 7- and 11-year-old sons play games and her 8-year-old daughter visits sites like www.funjail.com. Ms. Avant said she planned to keep trying to get through to the Schlotzsky’s network on her own computer. “It’s a lot better than my dial-up at home,” she said. “The only downside is I can’t print anything.”
People who use public Wi-Fi networks have another option: they can use the same setup to connect to wireless networks at home, at the office and at school. Running a Wi-Fi network in an office is only slightly more involved. Janine Kurnoff, who runs a Portland company that trains sales and marketing professionals, has maintained her Wi-Fi network for a year and a half. “There’s a little bit of setup involved, but less than an hour of work,” she said. “You don’t have to configure anything. The computer sees your network and picks it up.”
Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, a girls’ school in Bellevue, Wash., was part of Microsoft’s Pioneer School program on incorporating technology into the curriculum in 1996. Now each student’s tuition buys a Wi-Fi-ready laptop.
“There’s a lot of instant messaging going on,” said Diane Burgess, 39, the school’s information technology manager. Ms. Burgess said classes were no longer disrupted by cellphones, parents message their children to arrange pickup times, and students regularly share files for collaborative projects. “Wi-Fi lets them do group work from anywhere on campus,” Ms. Burgess said. “It’s a really freeing experience.”
Beyond the hardware and software difficulties that users like Ms. Avant have encountered at public Wi-Fi spots, there are traffic considerations: connection speeds can slow if the number of users on a network picks up. And some home Wi-Fi users have reported that the systems, which operate on the 2.4-gigahertz frequency, are subject to interference from cordless telephones and microwave ovens. Ms. Burgess said that water, which absorbs the wireless signal’s energy much like food in a microwave oven, can interfere with a home network and that glasses, clothes and other clutter can obstruct the signal. “It actually helps me keep my home cleaner,” she said. “My kids keep their rooms absolutely streamlined now.”
Security is also a concern for open networks. Mark Malewski of NexTech Wireless, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that is trying to organize grass-roots Wi-Fi networks, said there were steps the hot spot operators could take to help. “We have an authentication server that tracks usage,” he said. “Without that, a lot of people could plug in an access point and share it with those who could conduct fraudulent activity.”
Security concerns will become more important as public Wi-Fi networks spread and more people use them. Statistics on use of the technology are elusive, but according to Gartner, a consulting company in Stamford, Conn., the number of Wi-Fi cards sold in North America this year is on track to jump 75 percent over 2001, with another 57 percent gain over this year expected in 2003. William Clark, research director at Gartner, said that the number of frequent Wi-Fi users was expected to grow to 1.9 million next year from 700,000 in 2002, with the number of public hot spots in North America likely to nearly triple by the end of next year from about 3,300 now.
In fact, this growth is responsible for casual Wi-Fi use beyond the high-tech vanguard. Sherry Bough, 56, and her husband, Bob, 59, live at the Austin Lone Star RV Resort, a gated park with a heated pool, a playground and a Wi-Fi network, for six months a year to be near their children. The Boughs used to order a phone line whenever they stayed in one place for more than a month so that they could use their dial-up Internet connection to track their investments, check e-mail and search the Web. Now they use the park’s Wi-Fi network.
“It’s amazing how fast it downloads,” Mrs. Bough said of the network, which was installed earlier this fall and offers fee-based service by the day, week or month. Still, she said, it took her a couple of hours to connect the first time. “It was a little bit confusing,” she said. “To me, that’s where they’re failing right now.” To use the wireless network, the Boughs had to buy a U.S.B. card for their computer and they updated to Windows 98; Mrs. Bough said they also needed to install more memory.
James Westberry, 55, is another part-time resident at Austin Lone Star. He works in Austin, the state capital, when the Legislature is in session, advising lobbyists for small telephone companies like the Eastex Telephone Cooperative, where he works. He goes home to Tyler, Tex., on the weekends.
“I have to have high-speed Internet wherever I’m at,” he said. “Otherwise I’d be at a hotel or have an apartment.” He uses it to download bills, attend committee meetings online and to check e-mail.
Public Wi-Fi has also begun to change the way people play. Jack Swayze, a 27-year-old technical-support worker in Vienna, Va., gathers with laptop-equipped friends at Wise Zone hot spots around Washington to team up for live-action shooting games like Unreal Tournament 2003 and Medal of Honor, which they play against other Web “posses.” “The connection is as reliable and fast as my connection at home,” he said.
At the Alamo Drafthouse North, a movie theater in Austin, wireless access is available in the four screening halls. Tim League, the theater’s 32-year-old owner, installed the Wi-Fi access in concert with Austin Wireless, which set up the system after he agreed to offer it to viewers free.
Mr. League uses the network to offer Internet-based activities to entertain viewers before movies. He is testing interactive trivia programs and audience polling contests and expects to have one running soon. “I’ve always thought it strange that the slides you see before movies still exist,” he said. “That the practice hadn’t changed in 30 years just seemed silly.” He shows animated videos that are downloaded from the Web using a Wi-Fi-equipped computer in his projection room. “Viewers also use the Web to research movie facts or catch up on their work or e-mail, though we ask them to close their laptops when the show begins,” he said.
Entertainment is the main motivation behind Shane Nixon’s experiments with public Wi-Fi. Mr. Nixon, 34, was trying to log on to a Wayport hot spot at the Austin airport last week while he waited for a flight to Bowling Green, Ky., where he lives.
A construction and maintenance coordinator who travels three weeks a month, Mr. Nixon had been using dial-up connections while on the road to chat with his wife by instant messaging and to play card games with her on sites like www .mysticisland.net. He had just installed a wireless network at home so that he, his wife and two sons could go online at once, and he was trying to connect wirelessly on the road for the first time. When he could not log on, he used his cellphone to call Wayport’s technical-support number, but his cellphone battery died. Despite the technical problems he encountered, Mr. Nixon said he would probably stick with Wi-Fi. “I’m gone all the time, so that’s a way to keep in touch and do something together,” he said.
Mr. Nixon noted another virtue of high-speed chatting. “You can talk all night long,” he said, “and you don’t have a large phone bill.”