At 65, JoWynn Johns is an artist, book lover, student, researcher, grandmother and shopper. She's also homebound because of a neuro-hormonal disease, so she relies on her high-speed wireless Internet connection to keep her plugged in to the world.
"I am online constantly," the vivacious Johns said. For example, the retired management consultant recently finished reading a book about 13th-century cathedrals. Then she went online and took virtual tours of her favorite buildings. She's enrolled in an online needlepoint class where she's learned to spin art out of tiny gold threads. She orders groceries, medications, antiquarian books, sewing supplies and clothing online.
Johns, not surprisingly, was one of the first to sign up when a Baltimore start-up company launched its high-speed wireless Internet service earlier this month at her retirement home. She wasn't the only one; a dozen other retirees also jumped on one of the hottest Internet bandwagons of the year.
In the wake of the tech bust, high-speed wireless networks are one of the few technologies generating any excitement from users or providers.
The attraction of this fast, mobile service, known as Wi-Fi or 802.11b, is that it's faster than dial-up modems and cheaper than accessing the Internet by cable or DSL modems. And it's beginning to move beyond the confines of gearheads who like to figure out the sometimes-arcane rules of network connections. Businesses are starting to sell the service of setting up and operating the networks, making it more accessible.
One of the benefits of Wi-Fi technology is that it doesn't require tearing down walls to install new wires. It's inexpensive because it operates on unlicensed airwaves, so companies don't have to pay fees to use the spectrum. Increasingly, cafes and coffee shops, as well as universities and airports, are installing the technology, so it's possible to flip open a laptop within 300 feet of the signal to access the Web at high speeds.
The tiny start-up Oneder LLC (pronounced "wonder"), which is providing the Wi-Fi service to Johns and other residents living in the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville, Md., is an example of the businesses trying to tap into that interest. Elderly people tend to harbor a lot of skepticism about technology, said Oneder President Keith Walter, so if the company can make enough money to justify its investment there, Oneder hopes to serve businesses, too. The firm plans to start building a Washington area network, starting in Silver Spring, late this year or early next year.
Part of the technology's appeal is its simplicity. Johns's Internet traffic travels through a small, fin-shaped wireless modem near her computer to an antenna on the roof of her retirement home and then is beamed back wirelessly to a network in Baltimore. Her connection is about three times as fast as the dial-up service she was using before, and at $29.99 a month it is considerably less than the $45 monthly fee for Comcast's cable-modem service.
"Many of the people who live here have had highly technical careers in the government," and so about half of them are already paying for Internet access of some kind, said Michael Berger, senior director of information services for Erickson Retirement Communities, the firm that runs Charlestown and nine similar retirement communities. Every year the number of technically savvy residents increases, and that means Erickson is looking for cheap and easy-to-use ways for residents to access the Internet, he said. Eventually, high-speed access will be a standard part of the monthly residential service fee, he said.
In a few short weeks, the connection has already become an integral part of Johns's life.
"My social life is online," she said. It has become one of the primary ways she stays in touch with her five children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild, she added.
With the new technology, Johns's husband, Ernest Norris, 77, can simultaneously log on to one of their three computers and manage their finances, scan pictures of their grandchildren, shop for electronics or read newspapers online.
"We'd been working with computers probably since the early 1980s, and all along, as PCs advanced, we stayed abreast of what was going on," said Norris, who worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as well as Lockheed Martin Corp. and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
Now, Norris has another pastime that's made more pleasant by the speedy connection: viewing real-time footage from cameras set up on mountains that allow him to bird-watch from his swivel chair at home.