Going Mobile High-speed, wireless connections to the Internet are popping up everywhere. Here's our up-to-the-minute guide to boosting your bandwidth.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – The poor slob is sitting cross-legged on the floor of the airport waiting lounge, still sweating from his dash through the triple-digit Texas heat. He's balancing his laptop on one knee, and a phone line is stretched taut from his laptop's modem to the data port on a pay phone. He may be trying to send a file back to the home office, or maybe he's grabbing e-mail before boarding his flight. The only thing broadband about him is his waist.
Me, I'm stretched back on an almost comfy chair near my gate, a bit-eating grin on my face as I strum a laptop on my knees. I'm sucking down Web pages at maybe a couple of megabits per second--at least 20 times the speed of the dial-up modem tethered to the pay phone.
Look, Ma, no wires. The small fin of a radio-based Ethernet local area network card protrudes from a PC slot on the side of my laptop, and millions of bits are swimming between it and a little black box hidden somewhere near my gate at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. That transceiver box, in turn, taps into the Internet on a high-speed fiber line operated by an Austin company, Wayport. Transceivers are strategically placed throughout the airport, allowing me to roam seamlessly from the gate to the baggage claim area without losing my broadband connection.
Why would I want to get fast, wireless Internet access at the baggage carousel? Because it's there! The point is that the future of wireless broadband connectivity is upon us, and it promises to open up a rich new frontier of mobile services, encompassing not just data but voice, video, and audio.
Well, sort of. The Austin and Dallas airports, which went wireless this summer, are rare convergence spots for two of the hottest Internet trends today: going faster and going wireless. (Wayport says the next airports to go wireless this year will be LaGuardia, Kennedy, and Newark, in the New York area, and Seattle-Tacoma.) But as soon as I leave the airport, the trends diverge. I can be wireless, or I can be broadband, but with a few isolated exceptions--a hotel conference room, a convention center, and my home office--I cannot be both wireless and broadband at the same time.
We're still years away from the widespread availability of cheap, high-speed, wide-area, wireless connections to the Internet. So-called 3G (third-generation) cell phones and pocket communicators will eventually supplant personal computers as the most common way to swap electronic messages and grab snippets of information from the Internet, but they are just beyond the horizon.
Still, we can get a sneak peek at this wireless broadband future by looking at a variety of new products available now or coming in the next few months.
For example, Metricom (www.metricom.com) is rolling out a second-generation wireless radio modem system this fall in San Diego, Atlanta, and a few other major cities. The company says the system will eventually enable travelers to send and receive information through a laptop computer at up to 128 kilobits per second (Kbps), even while they are in the back seat of a taxicab hurtling down a New York City sidewalk at 70 miles per hour.
Metricom's Ricochet modem, about the size of a videocassette, costs $299, or less with a long-term service contract. The fixed monthly cost for Internet connectivity was not set at press time, but Metricom said it would be higher than the $50 charged for current 28.8Kbps Ricochet service. Even so, 128Kbps is so much faster than other wide-area wireless networks that it seems destined to be popular.
While we're waiting for 3G phone systems, which will start showing up in Japan and Europe next year, look for phones using the Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) wireless standard. Unlike current Web-enabled phones, which require the user to dial up an Internet connection each time he or she wants to use the Web, radio-based CDPD devices are always connected to the Net, 24 hours a day, at a data rate of up to 19.2Kbps.
CDPD can be tested today with a Palm V handheld organizer and a Novatel Wireless Minstrel 5 modem, which has a list price of $369 but is often available for less than $200 with a service contract. Novatel Wireless (www.novatelwireless.com) is also preparing to introduce a Minstrel S modem for Handspring Visor handhelds, at about the same price.
Palm Computing, meanwhile, has promised that its entire line of Palm organizers will be able to connect to cell phones via infrared link or cable to provide Internet access at cell-phone speeds--typically 9.6Kbps to 14.4Kbps. Still, that's better than the 8Kbps rate of the Palm VII. Palm's rivals, Handspring and Sony, as well as Compaq and other companies that make handheld computers based on the Microsoft Pocket PC operating system, also plan to make wireless access a standard feature.
Today's wireless speeds of 14.4, 19.2, and even 128Kbps are decidedly narrowband, but AT&T Wireless Services and Nortel Networks have said that in coming months they will begin testing wireless technologies with speeds up to 384Kbps. By 2002, if the forecasts are correct, High Data Rate CDMA technology will allow mobile connections at up to 600Kbps. And by 2003, when analysts expect 3G communicators to start proliferating in the U.S., wireless connection speeds will reach between 400Kbps and 2Mbps (megabits per second)--wireless broadband at last.
Before going any further, sticklers will note that broadband is a technical term that has nothing to do with data transmission speed. In common usage, however, it has come to mean high-speed, interactive data transmission. For our purposes, let's define broadband as at least 384Kbps, which is where video over the Internet starts to look tolerable. Some people define it as 2Mbps, some as 10Mbps. Like the definitions of "rich" or "supercomputer," the standards for earning "broadband" status will keep getting higher.
No matter what you call it, the faster you go, the better it gets (and the more it costs, of course). How good can it get? TeraBeam, a startup in Seattle, says it will begin offering gigabit wireless data services in Seattle later this year, bringing up to a billion bits per second through your office window via a laser beam and a special holographic receiver.
But we're getting way ahead of ourselves.
For most people, broadband involves wires. An estimated three million homes in the U.S. have high-speed Internet access through cable modems or digital subscriber line (DSL) services, which typically cost between $40 and $60 a month. The numbers will swell to 16 million by 2002, according to the market research company Cahners In-Stat Group.
For those who live in remote areas, or neighborhoods where cable and DSL are unavailable, not-quite-broadband alternatives include fixed wireless local loop, terrestrial television data casting, and direct broadcast satellite services like Hughes' DirecPC (www.direcpc.com).
Consumer satellite systems aren't really broadband or wireless, at least not yet. While the theoretical top download speed of DirecPC is 400Kbps--in good weather, with a clear, unobstructed view of the southern sky--mouse clicks and typed commands travel to the Internet on a regular phone line at 56Kbps. This is not ideal, but if your only alternative is a 56K modem, satellite can be an attractive option.
On top of the average $50 monthly Internet service fee, you'll need a satellite dish ($150 to $250). Plan on spending an equal amount to have it installed professionally. The companies say anyone can install his or her own rooftop dish, but don't believe them.
Once you get broadband Internet access at home, whether it arrives via wire or through the air, it is unfair not to share it with other family members or roommates. So you'll have to set up a home local area network. Consumers with a high geek quotient will want to string Category 5 Ethernet cables through the house, using power drills, 12-inch bits to bore through the walls, and a Stanley IntelliSensor DigiScan stud sensor to avoid accidentally drilling into live power lines. In other words, kids, don't try this at home. If your spouse doesn't kill you, something else might. A much safer alternative is to set up a home network using either the home's existing phone line system or--my favorite--a wireless network.
A Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) version 2.0 network takes advantage of existing phone lines to transfer data at up to 10Mbps. A HomePNA 2.0 card (about $70) is installed on each computer to be networked, and the PCs are plugged into a nearby phone jack.
The cleverest new use of HomePNA is in Dell's forthcoming Digital Audio Receiver, a small box that allows MP3 music files stored on a PC's hard disk drive to be played through a home stereo system. The digital audio receiver ($249, or $199 when purchased with a new Dell PC, beginning in October) has both Ethernet and HomePNA ports. The trick for many people will be finding a phone jack or Ethernet port near the stereo.
Finding a phone jack in the right location can be frustrating, which leads us back to the wireless world.
Last year, Apple kick-started the wireless home network by introducing a low-cost, high-speed system called AirPort, based on the 11Mbps IEEE 802.11b (WiFi) technical standard. Despite the daunting name, 802.11b has emerged as the leading wireless networking system.
All new portable and desktop Macintosh computers come with wireless antennas built in, and all Macs equipped with a $99 AirPort networking card can talk to one another. A sleek $299 AirPort base station allows up to ten AirPort-equipped Macs to share a high-speed Net connection, with a maximum range of 300 feet.
Both IBM and Dell said they would soon add wireless networking capabilities to their notebook computers, using the same standard that Apple pioneered. IBM's i-Series ThinkPads with a built-in wireless antenna will be released in October. But IBM's wireless networking card costs $179, compared with $99 for Apple's card, and the IBM base station costs $999, vs. Apple's $299. Dell's offerings are $167 and $909, respectively.
All 802.11b systems use the unlicensed 2.4 gigahertz frequency band, which is getting very crowded. Microwave ovens and many cordless phones use the same frequency, and the potential for interference is there.
A rival technical system, called the HomeRF shared wireless access protocol, recently won approval from the Federal Communications Commission to increase its speed to 10Mbps from 2Mbps, suddenly making it a viable challenger to the 802.11b system. The two incompatible standards will duke it out in the marketplace.
And finally, this fall will bring the first wireless networking products based on the short-range-radio Bluetooth standard, which is likely to have an impact even on people who hate personal computers. Some 2,000 companies have signed up to support the Bluetooth standard, which enables electronic devices to communicate with one another wirelessly at distances of up to 30 feet. Toshiba has just begun shipping Bluetooth cards for its laptops, as well as a Bluetooth modem. With the modem connected to a phone line, the Bluetooth-equipped laptop can tap into the Web from a nearby easy chair, without wires.
A few years from now all new household appliances--smart phones, cell phones, TV sets, kitchen appliances, digital cameras, printers, garage-door openers, air conditioners--will come with Bluetooth networking capabilities and will be able to talk to one another.
With human intervention no longer needed, I might as well take a vacation. But there is no getting away from broadband. Wayport, the company that is unwiring the Austin, Dallas, and New York-area airports, has also signed deals to offer wired broadband services to travelers in dozens of hotels and conference centers, including a deal with the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts chain. Hotels, always looking for a way to squeeze another few dollars out of their guests, are quickly adding high-speed Internet lines and Ethernet connections to selected rooms, usually at a cost of $10 to $12 a day. Another company, CAIS Internet, is racing to offer high-speed wired services not just in Hilton hotels and shopping malls, but also on cruise ships and in truck stops.
All very comforting, but how could I enjoy my cruise knowing that back home my garage-door opener and my refrigerator might be talking about me?
PETER H. LEWIS, a former columnist for the New York Times, is now a FORTUNE senior editor. His new column on personal technology will make its debut in October. He can be reached at email@example.com.