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Special Report: WiFi
A New Wave of Wireless
'WiFi' Networks Are Expanding Internet's Reach, Profit Opportunities


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By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2003; Page H01

It's Saturday afternoon, and Art Slater sits at his perch in the bay window of the Cyberstop Cafe.

The thin card he slides into the side of his laptop detects a wireless signal, an icon pops up on the bottom of the screen, and Slater clicks on it to connect to the signal coming from the Dupont Circle cafe's back offices 20 feet away.

With that, he's on the Internet, with a connection faster than anything at home.

Outside on the patio, Matt O'Neill is transmitting files of art over the same airwaves as Slater.

Across town near Eastern Market, Nicholas Cho just installed a similar wireless connection in his own cafe, Murky Coffee. A for-fee version of the same technology is available in 145 Starbucks coffee bars around the area.

And in a Leesburg subdivision 40 miles from downtown, Laurie and Rich Dunham are making a tiny profit selling a wireless Internet service broadcast from their rooftop to their neighbors' homes.

The WiFi networking all these people are using could not have been purchased for any price 10 years ago. Five years ago it was just arriving in the market, advertised solely as a cheap way to network computers in individual homes and classrooms.

But WiFi (short for "wireless fidelity," and sometimes referred to by the technical description "802.11b") is going lots of other places. It began life as an alternative to wired Ethernet networks, but it has grown into a tool to expand the boundaries of the Internet. WiFi has allowed an invisible web of wireless networks to creep across the Washington area, offering Internet access to anyone with the right hardware.

The number of locations with WiFi service -- or "hot spots" -- quadrupled last year, to just under 4,000 nationwide, according to the research firm Instat/MDR.

At home, a WiFi setup can be quite simple. A typical rig consists of a $100-or-less access point, plus under-$50 receivers in each computer. The access point takes a broadband or dial-up Internet connection and shares it with any authorized computer within range.

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