802.11 Wireless Internet
Now you can have a
serving of high speed internet access with your latte at the
See also our review of the
Canary Wireless Wi-Fi Hotspot detector.
Short range wireless internet
is now a reality, and available at your local Starbucks. You'll
also find it in AA airport lounges and many other places.
It is appearing in airport
lounges, Borders book stores, and even in Circle K minimarts and
Unocal gas stations.
But does it really work
Simple and Easy Wireless
Forget the gimmickry of slow
(and sometimes expensive) data connection through your cell
phone. If you're within range of an 802.11 Wi-Fi network, it
will provide a vastly superior internet connection.
In my testing, 802.11
wireless networking worked consistently and perfectly.
There are a number of
different variations on the basic concept of 802.11 wireless
networking. The most common is 802.11b - sometimes called
'Wi-Fi'. A faster version is 802.11a, but, alas, it is not
compatible with 802.11b. Newer versions have a different letter
after the 802.11 (eg 802.11g which seems likely to become the
new dominant standard) and these are all backwards compatible
with 802.11b and usually with 802.11a too.
The wireless networking is
usually very short range - commonly the maximum range is
somewhere between 100 ft and 100 yds from the wireless hub.
Wireless data speeds are
much faster than the rest of the internet connection - for
802.11b they range up to as high as 11 Mbps, depending on the
radio signal quality - comparable to your standard wired office
network, which probably offers either 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps speed.
Internet connections, if broadband, are seldom faster than 1
Mbps, and if dialup, are more than twenty times slower than 1
Mbps (ie 50 kbps or less).
Computers use a wireless
modem which connects via a radio signal to a wireless network
hub. Desktop computers either have a card that fits into a spare
slot in the computer or perhaps an accessory connection that
plugs into a USB slot. Laptop computers typically use a PC-card
(PC-MCIA) card device. The wireless hub looks just like a normal
hub, except for one or two short (about 3") aerials.
Windows XP makes configuring
a wireless network card remarkably simple. Plug it in, answer a
couple of questions, and it is done.
So, the theory of wireless
networking all sounds good.
Actually using it
T-Mobile - the people that
provide the service in the Starbucks stores and AA (and soon UA
and DL lounges and Borders book stores) kindly gave me a trial
account to test their Hotspot service.
The wonderfully simple setup
instructions consisted of only one single line (ie setting their
network name) plus a login identity and password. It took less
than a minute to configure my wireless modem, and then I took my
PC to a local Starbucks. Turned it on, and, without having to do
anything more, there I was - connected to the internet.
This puzzled me - I was
expecting a login screen from the T-Mobile service, but instead,
I was accessing the internet without logging on! A bit of
investigation revealed that my wireless modem had searched for
available networks, and in addition to finding the T-Mobile pay
network, had also found a free network (thank you, King County
Library Service) and so had connected me to the free network!
Wow. What could be easier than that.
I drove half a mile to the
next Starbucks. This time there were no competing free networks
to distract my modem, and up popped a login screen. Ten seconds
later, I was connected to the internet.
The internet connection was
blazingly fast. I tested the bandwidth several times, and was
consistently getting about 1.4 Mbps in both upload and download
directions - in other words, (after allowing for network
overhead) I had a full T1 of bandwidth, all to myself.
Incredible - what a wonderful luxury. Webpages appeared on my
screen almost before I'd finished typing in their URLs!
Thinking this too good to be
true, I drove to the next Starbucks, another half mile away.
After another instant connection, I was again racing through the
internet at speeds of 1.45 Mbps, much faster than I ever get
normally in the office. Absolutely wonderful. In the month or
more of using the service, all around the Seattle area and in
San Francisco also, connections have always been blazingly fast
T-Mobile have equipped every
Starbucks with a full T1 dataline, and I've only very rarely
ever seen anyone using the wireless service, meaning that most
of the time you're not having to share the bandwidth with anyone
else. T-Mobile spokesman Bryan Zidar explained
Much like a Starbucks cup of coffee, your experience at the
2,100 T-Mobile HotSpot locations is the same. We use T1
lines because we want the T-Mobile HotSpot experience to
mirror what business users are accustomed to at their
office. We want to provide enough bandwidth to support
streaming video for video conferencing and downloading
multi-media presentations, as well as for email and other
There's another reason that
Bryan doesn't mention that makes this broad bandwidth excellent.
If you're like me, when you're traveling on the road, your time
is at a premium. With the wonderful speed of T1, you can rush
into a Starbucks, and before you've finished drinking a cup of
coffee you've managed to download all your latest emails, send
off any emails you've had piling up on your laptop, quickly
check for any changes in flight schedules, and have a quick peek
at your favorite news website.
The fast speed saves you
time and keeps your productivity at a max. Sincere thanks to
T-Mobile for avoiding the temptation to cut costs on bandwidth.
They're truly offering a deluxe service.
A Deluxe Service - but what
about the Price?
Wi-Fi service is generally
T-Mobile offer several
different pricing plans. Casual users can simply pay 10c a
minute for a connection, meaning that you're not making any
commitment to monthly costs, and only pay when you actually use
(and benefit from) the service. Regular users will quickly find
their monthly unlimited plan compellingly good value - $30/month
allows you as much access as you want, anywhere in the US, with
no restriction on the amount of connect time or data you
If you don't already have a
wireless PC card for your laptop, you can buy one for under $50.
If you're using a private
corporate wireless network, it is probably using high quality
encryption and is reasonably private, making it difficult for
snoops to 'listen in' on your connection. But if you're using an
open public connection, then it is theoretically easier for
other people to tap into your transmissions.
But the easiest way for
anyone to see what you're doing is for them simply to sit behind
you and read over your shoulder!
Whenever you're using the
internet, at work or at home, wireless or wired, unless you're
on a highly encrypted VPN type connection, your data is
theoretically vulnerable to high tech surveillance. As such,
Wi-Fi is neither particularly more nor less vulnerable than any
other sort of internet communication.
Other Wireless Access Services
Semi-random pockets of
wireless service can be found all around the country, and the
number of these locations is growing, day by day.
In addition to all these
'one off' locations, there are other major service providers
rolling out nationwide service. STSN are adding wireless
connectivity to many of the hotels that already offer their
broadband (wired) connections. The
wireless services will be in public areas and meeting rooms
rather than in guest rooms. Last week Starwood also announced
plans to add Wi-Fi to 150 of their Sheraton, Westin and W hotels
Toshiba recently announced
an arrangement to add service to Circle-K mini-marts and Unocal
A consortium comprising
heavy-hitters IBM, Intel and AT&T are also planning to launch a
major deployment of Wi-Fi this year.
The most exciting
development of all is in the City of Long Beach where the local
council has provided a free Wi-Fi zone covering several complete
city blocks, and available for anyone to use. Let's hope other
cities follow Long Beach's initiative.
Free Wireless and Warchalking
When wireless networks were
first being deployed, many network administrators neglected to
add any access restrictions on them, allowing anyone within
range to access their network and internet connection. These
days, most corporate networks now have access restrictions, but
some altruistic people with wireless services in their office or
apartment have allowed their network to remain open and accept
connections from anyone.
As mentioned above, this
happened to me when I found myself connecting to a free service
located close to the first Starbucks I visited.
Additionally, a few far
sighted companies offer free wireless access as a 'loss leader'
to encourage people to visit their store.
To help people know where
open networks can be found, the concept of 'warchalking' was
created in Britain last year. Enthusiasts put special marks on
the walls of buildings where open wireless access exists.
Another type of wireless
connectivity is Bluetooth. But it works very differently and is
intended for different purposes. Our
special report on
Bluetooth explains what Bluetooth is and contrasts it with
Wi-Fi and other types of wireless connectivity.
Summary and Resources
W-Fi connections to the
internet can give you excellent connectivity and bandwidth, and
are almost completely painless to configure and set up on your
laptop if you have a modern operating system. The cost of the
modem is minimal, and if you travel regularly and can't bear to
be out of touch, this is definitely a service you'll want.
More information on
T-Mobile's service can be found
More information on
warchalking can be found
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21 Feb 2003, last update
20 Jul 2020
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.