You would not be crazy for thinking the "anytime, anywhere" vision of a wireless Internet had faded to "nowhere, never again" after the telecommunications industry meltdown. Who would throw good money after bad?
Venture capitalists, that's who. It turns out wireless networking start-ups are hot these days. Really hot. Silicon Valley's high rollers are throwing what little money they have left at wireless entrepreneurs, figuring mobile computing may be the industry's best shot at bootstrapping itself out of the gigantic hole it dug for the economy when it created a glut of new technologies in the 1990s.
Over the past 18 months, a grass-roots wireless networking standard known as Wireless Fidelity (or 802.11) has taken the telecommunications, consumer electronics and computer industries by storm. Wi-Fi systems transmit radio signals from any number of computer devices to a base station, which serves as a bridge to the Internet or private network.
Wi-Fi is on the verge of becoming a de facto global standard. Though it's short-range and wasn't conceived for widespread use, the standard has won converts because the equipment is cheap, its signals travel at higher speeds than cell-phone traffic and it uses an unlicensed portion of the spectrum.
Already, device makers are installing Wi-Fi antennas in new laptops, desktop computers and personal digital assistants. Even Microsoft's new tablet PC is Wi-Fi ready. Cellular carriers, meanwhile, are quietly developing plans to sell Wi-Fi access subscriptions. Start-ups are testing other business models for delivering Wi-Fi Internet access through public access points in airports, hotels and restaurants dubbed "hotspots." Still other entrepreneurs are working to make Wi-Fi signal transmission cheaper and smarter.
"Wi-Fi Internet access may not be anywhere, anytime, but in a few years it is going to be in most of the places you are likely to need it," predicts Alan Reiter, a wireless consultant based in Chevy Chase.
Intel has been working to push Wi-Fi into the mainstream by encouraging its business partners to make their products Wi-Fi friendly. Intel believes mobile computing can't revive the ailing technology industry without a uniform software standard for connecting disparate wireless data networks. Otherwise, people will grow frustrated when they discover their cool new mobile devices work in only one location or with just a few other devices.
"Our motto is 'We don't want no stinking standards war,' " said Sean Maloney, executive vice president and general manager of Intel Communications Group.
Since mid-2001, Intel has led a behind-the-scenes drive to woo cellular carriers, which originally pooh-poohed Wi-Fi as an inferior technology they feared would compete with their lower-speed cell-phone networks. But most big carriers are exploring Wi-Fi, based on the assumption that it might complement cellular service. The idea -- and the challenge -- will be to let people roam back and forth eventually between cellular and Wi-Fi networks when they are accessing the Internet wirelessly.
"This is analogous to the birth of the Web browser because everybody is beginning to share this vision of Wi-Fi in the home and throughout urban areas," Maloney said. "Within five years, all your peripherals in the home -- TVs, computers, stereos and other electronic devices -- will be connected with Wi-Fi. The same will be true when you go into schools, public buildings and businesses, and outdoors in most urban areas. You will have Wi-Fi coverage in all of those places."
Intel recently announced it has developed a low-cost way to add Wi-Fi antennas on silicon chips alongside the microprocessors of most laptops to be released next year. Intel also vowed to pump $150 million of venture capital into Wi-Fi start-ups.
There is no shortage of entrepreneurs to back. Vivato, a San Francisco start-up, announced this week it has developed an antenna system that boosts the signal strength of Wi-Fi radio beams by focusing them more narrowly. Vivato claims its antennas can expand the range of Wi-Fi signals from a few hundred feet to 2,000 feet indoors and four miles outside.
"We think this dramatically lowers the cost of Wi-Fi in a way that also gives it industrial-strength infrastructure," said Ken Biba, Vivato's chief executive.
Vivato plans to start selling its new technology in January, as does another California start-up, Aruba Wireless Systems. Aruba has been working on an architecture that distributes signals more efficiently and reduces the need to continually upgrade the access points required in a wireless network.
For now, Wi-Fi use is far from ubiquitous. And experts worry that the networks that do exist often are configured improperly, leaving them vulnerable to hackers. Nevertheless, market research firm InStat/MDR estimates that Wi-Fi transmission gear sold to businesses -- including antennas, access points and gateways -- will jump 75 percent this year, to 12 million units. Consumers also are using the gear to create wireless networks at home; they will purchase 6 million units this year, InStat/MDR estimates.
A fresh crop of wireless Internet service providers is attempting to sell wireless Internet access in public places. Typical is Boingo, which offers subscriptions to business travelers who want unified access to disparate Wi-Fi networks around the country.
Starbucks, meanwhile, is rolling out Wi-Fi access in more than 2,000 coffee shops nationwide. Next Wednesday it plans to light up wireless Internet access at select coffee shops around Washington -- 50 in Virginia, 37 in Maryland and 25 in the District. Customers will pay $2.99 for 15 minutes of access and higher rates for unlimited access.
For Wi-Fi to become ubiquitous in major institutions and public buildings, established telecommunications companies need to back the standard. The cellular carriers are still tight-lipped about their Wi-Fi strategies, but most have either announced Wi-Fi plans or at least acknowledged that they have some under development.
Maloney expects consumers to be able to buy Wi-Fi service in one form or another from most of the top U.S. cell-phone carriers next year.
"They will let you join their Wi-Fi club and have the bill appear on your telephone bill," he said. "Almost every cell-phone provider I know will offer that."
Leslie Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.