(FORTUNE Magazine) – Don't spit out your Joe:
Your favorite coffee joint may be going wireless. Imagine sitting down, flipping open your laptop, and downloading Web pages at superfast speeds--no dial-up required. Spot a friend across the cafe? No problem. Go join her, without losing your connection.
This is no cappuccino-induced fantasy: Starbucks, for one, has entered deals to deploy special technology that will deliver wireless broadband access in its cafes.
Consumers, too, are starting to use similar wireless systems to let multiple computers in the home share access to cable modem or DSL connections.
Driving the wireless frenzy is a technical standard called 802.11. (Pronounced "eight-oh-two dot 11.") Despite the geeky name, the idea is pretty simple: A company or homeowner installs a radio--these "hot spots" can be as small as a beer can--which is connected to the Internet via a robust T-1 phone line, DSL connection, or fiber. The radio, acting as an extension of the wire line, sends and receives data from mobile devices equipped with special PC cards that contain miniradios.
The system is emerging as the hot standard for wireless local-area networking: It uses unlicensed airwaves, so the airtime is free; users typically can download data at speeds about 15 to 30 times faster than a 56K modem. Merrill Lynch technology strategist Steven Milunovich recently issued a report saying the combination of 802.11 and souped-up cellular networks raises questions about the need for costly third-generation broadband wireless networks.
Some hot startups are rushing to capitalize on 802.11. Wayport provides wireless networks in hotels and airports; Vernier Networks, started by former Cisco honcho Judy Estrin, makes 802.11 secure for use in corporate networks. Atheros, founded by Stanford professor Teresa Meng, is developing semiconductors for products built on the next generation of the standard, known as 802.11a.
Besides its name, 802.11 has other flaws. It is a shared network, so speeds degrade when many people use the same access point. It isn't that mobile; you can't maintain a connection outside the range of the hot spot. And a network that anyone can access with a 802.11-enabled device requires extra security precautions.
Still, proponents believe 802.11 will become ubiquitous and are even pushing the name "wi-fi," short for ''wireless fidelity," as a substitute for the term 802.11. We'll take any name...as long as the stuff works as promised.
--Stephanie N. Mehta