I'm sitting on the terrace of the Best Western Gateway Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., with my laptop open, about to embark on a little adventure. I've been hearing a lot about Wi-Fi lately, and not just from my geekier friends. Everyone who has tried the new high-speed wireless technology loves it--from homeowners who use it to network all their computers, to road warriors who can now go online from airport boarding lounges. And it's spreading to more public places like coffee shops and, not far from my home, this very hotel, where I have decided to try it and am now drawing suspicious glances from the staff.
The Best Western Gateway is one of two public "hot spots" listed for Santa Monica in the directory of Boingo Wireless, which offers Wi-Fi access in locations scattered across the country. I have already talked to a preternaturally cheerful customer-service rep and signed up for Boingo, which has a wireless transmitter in the hotel lobby. So I'm ready for action.
I insert my credit card-size Wi-Fi receiver into the PC-card slot of my laptop. The "sniffer" software then checks the air for wireless signals, and a message pops up: "The Boingo Wireless signal is available. Would you like to connect?" A click on the trackpad and I'm online. As my home page loads, I'm tempted to pass my hands over my computer like a magician's assistant: Look, no wires! I access a website that lets me benchmark my download speed; it clocks in at 2,920 kbps, comparable to my home cable-modem connection and 55 times as fast as the standard 56K dial-up modem. This is impressive. Heartened, I head off to my next destination: Pasadena and two free NANS (neighborhood access networks) operated by private users for the public good. I am filled with good cheer and the promise of a wireless future.
Most people who use Wi-Fi today do so in institutional settings such as schools and businesses and via a handful of pay networks that serve hotels, cafes, airports and convention centers. The benefits are obvious to the traveling exec who logs on to his corporate network from an airport lounge, downloads the latest revision of a huge PowerPoint file and arrives fresh and unmussed at his presentation.
Wi-Fi is handy around the hometown as well. Tim Bajarin, president of the tech consultancy Creative Strategies, frequently finds himself strapped for time, unable to get back to the office between meetings. "So when I know I've got a 45-minute break, I head to Starbucks," he says. "I log on, check my e-mail, come up to speed on information that I need and head off to my next meeting."
Capabilities like this have driven the Wi-Fi equipment market to staggering growth, with unit shipments of home and business hardware climbing 319% in 2001, according to the research firm In-Stat/MDR. More than 19 million Americans are expected to use Wi-Fi by 2006. That growth, real and projected, has moved techies to imagine a magic, seamless, nationwide carpet of high-speed wireless access, available to all and as ubiquitous as air.