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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Wireless wizardry

By Kevin Maney and Michelle Kessler
USA Today

Wireless home networking is emerging as the most important new product in consumer computing and electronics.

It links all the digital products in your house — computers, printers, handheld organizers, DVD players — to each other and to the Internet without cables.

That means a PC in the bedroom, for example, could transfer songs to a music system in a car parked in the garage. Home appliances could be turned on via the Internet by owners stuck at the office.

Wireless home networking works using a transmitter the size of a book, which plugs into a cable modem or DSL and bathes the house in radio waves that can carry data at super-high speeds.

Why is that such a big deal? The Internet has proven the power of connecting digital machines around the world. Technologists have long believed new possibilities would spring open if they could connect devices inside homes. That vision, though, has been slowed by wires. It's costly and difficult to run cables and wires through walls.

Wireless networks jump that hurdle. They have been available for the home for at least two years, but only now are getting cheap, reliable and simple enough to be practical.

And that will change the way consumers use technology in their homes.

Home PCs, now mostly for e-mail, Internet prowling and games, will become home servers, feeding information or entertainment to other digital gadgets — even controlling the thermostat or lights. There will be no reason a movie has to be trapped in a DVD player when the DVD player can send it wirelessly to any TV or computer screen in any room. For the first time, major companies, including Sony, Philips, Cisco Systems and AOL Time Warner, are diving into the market.

Backed by Bill Gates

Significantly, Microsoft has thrown its weight behind wireless networking, specifically a standard called 802.11. The latest Microsoft operating system, Windows XP, was designed to make wireless networking simple. The company's vision for the near future revolves around wireless networks. As perhaps the heartiest endorsement of all, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates considers the technology one of the most important innovations of the past five years.

"If any one technology has emerged the past few years that will be explosive in its impact, it's 802.11,'' Gates said.

A wireless network works a lot like a cordless phone. For a phone, the line connects to a base station that has an antenna. The phone will work almost anywhere in the house, but not much beyond it.

For a wireless computer network, the base plugs into a cable modem or DSL. (It doesn't work with a dial-up connection.) A receiver plugs into a desktop computer's port. For laptops, the receiver can be a PC card.

Four technologies have been jostling around the home networking space. The emerging front-runner — and the one that has Microsoft's all-important backing — is 802.11, which is also known by the friendlier term Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity.

The system uses the same radio frequency as a cordless phone but is pumped up to carry data 10 times faster than a cable modem.

Several computers could share one base station. Other electronic products, such as a stereo or robotic toy, could be equipped with antennas and software so they, too, could connect to the base station.

"Wireless is just going to get built into things,'' said Charlie Giancarlo, senior vice president at Cisco Systems.

From TV to talking Fido

Wireless networking will drive innovations in several sectors. Some examples:

• Home entertainment systems. If TVs and stereos connect to the Internet, they could get content from Web sites. A pay-per-view site could stream a movie through the base station to any TV in the house. Stereos could play radio stations or streaming music off the Web, which might become a major competitor to traditional radio.

Cisco and Sony have both demonstrated flat-panel TVs that receive video feeds this way. Electronics maker TDK is developing wireless Internet video products, expected to be available in mid-2002.

For audiophiles, Philips has built a prototype Wi-Fi Internet radio. It can play music stored on a computer without ever plugging in.

• Car stereos. Mercedes-Benz recently demonstrated a prototype wireless network for a C320 sedan. The car could download music from the Internet or from a home PC.

"You pull into your garage. Your wireless network automatically transfers music files to the MP3 player in your car,'' said C. Brian Grimm of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, an industry trade group. No more taking CDs in and out of the car.

Networks along a highway could work the same way. "As I drive into L.A., my navigation system will talk to a wireless network hidden in a lamppost. The lamppost will give me a map update for L.A.,'' said Rich Redelfs, CEO of Atheros, a wireless chipmaker.

• Appliances. Dishwashers, ovens and washing machines could be controlled through the Internet, said Vane Clayton, president of Troy Wireless, a wireless equipment maker. If you forgot to turn the dishwasher on before you left the house, you could use the Web to connect to your wireless network, which would send a signal to start it. "If you're on the road, you could dial into a Web site and set the thermostat,'' Clayton said.

• Toys. Talking action figures and dolls will download what the industry calls "additional dialogue capabilities'' wirelessly from the Internet, said Omar Javaid, chairman of wireless consulting firm Mobilocity. Sony's AIBO robotic dog is one of the first. It can get e-mail wirelessly, then use a voice processor to read e-mail to its master.

Lower prices; easier to install

The most common form of Wi-Fi can carry information at 11 megabits per second. A typical set-up would have a range of about 300 feet. Unless you live in a mansion, that should cover the house, yard and beyond.

A newer type, Wi-Fi5, can handle even more information — up to 54 megabits per second. It doesn't travel as far as regular Wi-Fi, but is ideal for sending DVD-quality video to any TV in the house.

The same technology is increasingly being installed in public places. Starbucks launched an aggressive program to put Wi-Fi in its coffee shops, so anyone could get a coffee, pay a small connection fee, then sit at a table with a laptop and get on the Net. The Seattle/Tacoma airport offers Wi-Fi connections at gates. A number of companies, including Microsoft, have Wi-Fi networks that cover all of their buildings. Carnegie Mellon University's entire campus has Wi-Fi.

Apple Computer for two years has sold its AirPort, a Wi-Fi wireless networking device for Macintosh computers.

The necessary equipment to set up a home wireless network now costs about $300, but prices are dropping rapidly.

How hard is it to install? Right now, too hard for most — again, a lot like the first dial-up modems. But that, too, is changing. Software is making set-up simpler. Hardware is getting more refined. Most significant, Microsoft's Windows XP makes it possible to find, identify and configure a wireless connection with a few mouse clicks. "Before XP, there were issues,'' admitted WECA's Grimm. "Now it will be simpler. They've done a good job.''

Security concerns remain

Wi-Fi still has some issues. A big one is security. Compared with wired networks, it can be pretty easy to tap into someone else's wireless network.

Some corporate wireless networks, if not layered with extra security, are so porous, "people can drive into their parking lots and get onto their networks,'' said Ken Caruso, a member of a user group called Seattle Wireless. Grimm, of WECA, said that newer versions of Wi-Fi out next year will solve some, though not all, the security issues.

Another problem: There still isn't a Wi-Fi standard, so some of today's products might not work with others bought a year from now. That's expected to be ironed out soon, through action led by WECA and its 125 member firms.

Clearly, the industry is still in its infancy. A major Wi-Fi conference, 802.11 Planet, was held in Silicon Valley last month. Little more than a dozen companies showed up. Several were start-ups that as yet had no customers.

But Wi-Fi is getting a ton of attention from technology and communications companies and investors. Venture capitalists such as Bill Gurley at Benchmark Capital and Rod Randall of St. Paul Venture Partners are enthusiastically looking for Wi-Fi investments.

Some users aren't willing to wait. Wi-Fi user groups are springing up in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and New York. Through meetings and e-mail, members share tips. Some have even collaborated to build free ad hoc wireless Internet networks for their neighborhoods.

On a recent afternoon, 16 Wi-Fi networks were transmitting near Third and Market streets in San Francisco. They were monitored by Bay Area Wireless Users Group co-founders Tim Pozar and Matt Peterson, using a laptop propped on top of a mailbox.

"I'd love to see this throughout the world,'' said Pozar, as he logged into his e-mail from the street corner. Thanks to Wi-Fi, that day might not be far off.