If information is the oxygen of the digital age, then we are all gasping for breath as soon as we step out of our homes and offices. Walking in streets, commuting in carpools or sitting in restaurants, the urban American working man and woman is largely denied the one thing that keeps us breathing, productive, entertained and connected in the stationary part of our lives: fast and easy access to the incandescent pleasures and powers of the Internet. Maybe that's a good thing, who knows? Future scientists might decide our eyes needed a rest from all that text-scanning and link-hopping. But they could have said the same about the outdoors as a sanctuary from assault by telephone -- and now street cellular is ubiquitous. Earlier scolds could also have said the same about radio. So why has it taken so long to make access to the Internet as common as the FM radio? The glib technical answer is that the Internet has long been imagined and implemented as a phenomenon solely of the wired world, something that requires AC power and a dial tone. But a grass-roots campaign of hackers and hobbyists who believe the Net deserves to be unfettered and unwired have in the past few months joined forces with an unlikely set of corporate and political desperadoes to rip a big hole in that boring old thesis and push this country toward a future of unlimited wireless connectivity whenever, wherever. And they might even help patient investors make a buck or two with well-placed bets.
Wi-Fi to the Rescue
The enabling technology is Wi-Fi, lively marketing jargon that's short for "wireless fidelity" and refers to a high-speed wireless data communications standard known in the trade as 802.11. For most of the 1990s, Wi-Fi was considered an out-there protocol that fired the imagination of geeks at electronics conventions but was never expected to make the big time. Instead, grander, and in many ways more ponderous, wireless technologies known as "2G" and "3G" took center stage.