Compare & Contrast
Look Ma, No Cords: Going Wireless
By Anthony Paonita
THERE'S a Starbucks café around the corner where I occasionally stop in for some morning caffeine. Lately, the denizens of this establishment, located in New York's trendy Flatiron District, have been surfing the 'Net while they sprawl in their easy chairs.
At first, I thought they were looking at old pages that they'd saved. But no, the laptop-equipped customers are actually looking at live Web pages, sending e-mail and otherwise acting as though they were plugged into a network.
As it turns out, these java addicts -- as well as many frequent flyers and other creations of business, American-style -- are pioneers in the move to wireless networking. We're not talking a few clipped lines on a personal digital assistant here. These intrepid techies are doing their 'Net thing with full-featured laptops, suitably equipped to be untethered by messy wires and complicated TCP/IP settings.
It makes perfect sense. Laptops finally are a substitute for desktop PCs, no longer hobbled by poor video performance, slow chips and crummy keyboards. Being unwired is the logical progression of the portable PC lifestyle. Exotic about a year or so ago, going wireless is becoming almost routine. And you don't have to limit yourself to the occasional session in a cybercafe. You can set up your office or home pretty easily for wireless networking. Just think: Now you'll be able to check your e-mail in bed.
Here's what you need to know. Basically, you need to get your computer up to snuff; set up a connection where you work and/or live, and check out where you can tap in.
As with any nascent technology, different standards are competing for primacy. Apple Computer Corp. started the mass-wireless bandwagon rolling when it introduced its "AirPort" with the original candy-colored iBook a couple of years ago. Now every Mac, portable or desktop, has a built-in antenna.
The AirPort uses Lucent's wireless protocol, and its non-Mac monicker is the unwieldy IEEE 802.11b. It's now commonly called "WiFi," marketing geniuses and techies showing sympathy for the tongue-twisted.
A couple of other standards have been bandied about, like Bluetooth and Intel's Home RF, but it looks, at least as I write this, that WiFi is in front. It's definitely the choice in most cafés, college campuses and airport lounges.
Naturally, you'll need a computer to be able to hook up. Most newer laptops can be equipped to be wireless. All they need is a PC card slot. The cards themselves are more or less like every other PC card, with some featuring antennas. The usual suspects, like Lucent Technologies and Netsys make cards, which typically cost around $100 or less. If you're shopping for a new laptop, look for a wireless bundle. Dell, Sony and IBM, to name a few, all sell wireless-ready machines. If you're a Macintosh user, all you'll need is Apple Computer Corp.'s "AirPort" card; installing one is just a matter of removing a door or lifting the keyboard and snapping it in.
PC, Phone Home
Your carefree wireless life doesn't have to be limited to surfing over an occasional caffé latte. You can do it at your home or office. You'll need a wireless router, which plugs into your phone or cable Internet line and then sends its signals out to your laptop -- or any computer that's set up to be wireless.
This setup allow you to share, too -- a single Internet connection can serve a few people at the same time. You need a broadband connection for this: While it's possible with a dial-up link, the lack of speed is excruciating. You don't want to go back to 1994, do you?
Routers can cost anywhere from under $200 to double that. It depends on the number of connections and other factors, such as whether they provide both wireless and land-bound connections. If you're looking to share your Internet connection between wired and wire-free computers, look for models such as Macsense's cross-platform XRouter Aero.
Again, if you're a Mac user and want to go completely wireless, you can buy Apple's AirPort Base Station; the setup software comes with every new Mac.
How do you set them up? You plug the thing in, make the connections, and then finetune the configuration through a browser. In doing so, you'll have to mimic your ISP's settings.
Of course, there are some caveats. While wireless promoters boast of Ethernet-like velocity, you'll hit speed bumps if you have thick walls, or big electric motors in the way, such as a refrigerator.
Cordless phones sometimes wreak havoc on wireless reception, too.
Some ISPs may frown on hooking up a router to share a connection. Check with your terms of service. Earthlink, for example, doesn't forbid its users from doing so, but if you choose to share, you won't get technical support. The company naturally would like to sell you its own small office/home office networking setup. It's up to you (and your tech chops) to decide whether to go it alone.
Take It With You
While wireless coverage isn't nearly as ubiquitous as cell phone service areas, with some careful planning, you can tap in at will. How does it work? You either sign up for a monthly subscription for unlimited hours, or pay as you go. It depends on the provider.
Take Starbucks, for instance. I've finally found a reason for not resenting their having taken over nearly every corner in town. But it does cost. The McDonald's of high-priced coffee struck up a partnership with Mobilstar Communications Corp., which provides the 802.11b service. (As of press time, VoiceStream Wireless has announced that it will buy MobilStar's assets.) Go to Mobilstar for locations and service plans, which, depending on your needs, range from $30-$60 a month.
For general information on wireless networking and products, visit www.80211-planet.com.
There's an ad hoc group of techies who have joined together to donate wireless space for free. Just think -- you can surf in the park. If you're in New York, check out www.nycwireless.net for wireless zones.
I doubt whether wireless Internet access will be quite as universal as, say, cell phones. It's hard to type standing up, for one thing. But it's fair to say that it's a good time to cast off those wires and cast a vote for networking freedom.
Anthony Paonita is a senior editor for The American Lawyer and Corporate Counsel, and a contributing editor to Law Technology News.