Nothing but Net

Future Tense: 802.11b Wireless Networking Technology

Dan Meiron was online from his Sony VAIO notebook computer when I walked into his office. Nothing unusual there -- as an associate provost at the California Institute of Technology, Meiron oversees everything from student Internet connections to the networking of the campus's libraries and research facilities. One thing about his laptop was noteworthy, however: There were no cords connecting it to the Net.

"This administration building was one of the first places that we networked with 802.11b wireless coverage," says Meiron. "It has made an enormous difference in meetings and conferences. Someone will say, 'I wish I could show you my data,' and they'll realize that they can."

802.11b -- also called "Wi-Fi," for "wireless fidelity" -- is the networking technology that is making the promise of ubiquitous Internet connectivity seem close at hand. Universities have been early adopters. And such companies as Starbucks and Starwood Hotels are implementing projects to network customer areas for Wi-Fi access, with several airport lounges and frequent-flier clubs soon to follow.

The attraction of Wi-Fi is its simplicity. Any location that is already wired for Ethernet access can be turned into a wireless area network simply by plugging a Wi-Fi network-access point into the existing jack. Obtaining the hardware is as easy as driving to a computer superstore: Apple Computer, Cisco Systems, IBM, Intel, Lucent, and Texas Instruments all produce Wi-Fi products. As prices for components continue to fall, Wi-Fi will become more accessible. Meiron estimates that Caltech spent around $2,000 per installed access point. Using approximately 15 access points to cover a building, Caltech would be able to network all of its 100 campus buildings for no more than $3 million. "There is so much that teachers and students could do if they could access real data right there in class," Meiron says.

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Business users are discovering the same thing. Although many companies may decide that people don't need roaming Internet access within and around their buildings, some employees are taking things into their own hands, purchasing individual network-access points and cards and creating their own Wi-Fi networks. Frequent travelers who depend on easy access to their corporate networks will welcome Wi-Fi access in airports and hotels. Free agents, long accustomed to using the local café as an office, will welcome Wi-Fi Internet access alongside their morning lattes.

Contact Dan Meiron by email (dim@its.caltech.edu).

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