Unwiring Your World: a Wi-Fi Primer - TheStreet

Everyone who's ever tripped over the wires from their computer can regard the advent of Wi-Fi with pleasure.

Wi-Fi, shorthand for the technology used in wireless local area networks, lets you unhook your PC from wires and surf the Internet from the seductive depths of the living room couch. As a consumer technology, it has much to recommend it: The networks are speedy and relatively easy to set up, and it's getting easier all the time to hook up to wireless networks at hot spots away from home.

Best of all, Wi-Fi doesn't demand a big cash outlay. In fact, the same convergence of competitive forces that have made life tough for small-fry WLAN-chip outfits have been a boon for consumers. As

Intel

(INTC) - Get Report

and

Texas Instruments

(TXN) - Get Report

have begun

muscling their way into the arena, expect prices to keep dropping, further boosting Wi-Fi's popularity.

At the low end,

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

hawks a Centrino laptop for a mere $999 after rebate. By the end of this year, it aims to include Wi-Fi as a standard feature on all its corporate laptops.

By the close of 2004, IDC predicts two-thirds of all notebook PCs are likely to be tricked out with Wi-Fi capabilities, up from an estimated 42% by the end of this year.

Do-It-Yourself WLAN

You don't need to invest much time and money to set up a wireless network. If you already own a wireless-enabled laptop, you need to install an access point in the form of a router to get the network running. The router, which connects to your cable or DSL modem, transmits and receives signals from your computer. You can buy one for around $60 or $70 from the likes of

Linksys

and

Netgear

.

To outfit older hardware to become Wi-Fi capable, you'll need to buy both the access point and a WLAN card, available for around $40 or $50. Expect to set up a wireless network in your house for not much more than $100, around half the cost of a couple years ago. The process should take from a half-hour to a few hours, depending on your computer savvy and how old your computer is.

Once you're set up, you'll need to weigh your service options. At home, you likely already have a regular Internet service provider. But if you want access to Wi-Fi in airports, hotels and caf¿s, you have to buy the service from somewhere else. Consider where you're most likely to use the service; to track down hot spots in your own neighborhood, check

www.wifinder.com, which lets you search by ZIP code, city and state.

WiFinder also tells you which service vendor offers Wi-Fi service at each location, which is helpful in choosing among the crazy patchwork of providers. For example, a quick search using a downtown San Francisco ZIP code turns up six hot spots, five of them serviced by T-Mobile.

T-Mobile, the biggest of the providers, offers Wi-Fi service at

Starbucks

coffee shops and

Borders

bookstores, among

other places. Wayport, another leading service outfit,

has deals with Chicago O'Hare and New York's LaGuardia airport, plus hotels such as the Four Seasons, Sheraton, Radisson and Hilton.

There are a mess of service plans from which to choose, depending on whether you want access on an hourly, daily or unlimited basis. T-Mobile provides unlimited service for $29.99 a month with a 12-month commitment or $39.99 on a month-to-month basis. Alternate plans let you pay $50 to access Wi-Fi for 300 minutes anywhere in the country, or 10 cents a minute with a 60-minute minimum user session per login.

Wayport also offers a one-time connection at a hotel ($9.95) or airport ($6.95), as well as prepaid cards and annual membership options.

It's worth noting Wi-Fi has been tagged with a reputation for lousy security in the past. But an improved security protocol known as Wi-Fi Protected Access, which debuted late this spring, is now available that should meet the needs of most home users, notes IDC's Abner Germanow, research manager for wireless LAN. A follow-up flavor of Wi-Fi called 802.11i aims to protect big companies from hackers.

For now most consumers are likely to associate Wi-Fi with computers, which offer the big screens most suitable for Internet viewing. Wi-Fi is also wending its way into handheld devices, like

Palm's

(PALM)

Tungsten C, but it's expected to be confined mostly to industrial or business uses.

Wi-Fi vs. 3G?

More interesting is that Wi-Fi is expected to start showing up in consumer cell phones over the next couple of years. That raises questions about whether it could elbow out the wide-area network technology known as 3G -- a standard long championed by cell-phone operators, but which has so far met with disappointing sales.

"Whether Wi-Fi is complementary or competitive with 3G is really the big question," says Tim Shelton, director of wireless research for Allied Business Intelligence.

The upstart Wi-Fi technology is faster, pushing data at 11 megabits per second (for the most popular flavor of WLAN chip) compared to less than a couple of megabits per second for 3G. On the other hand, Wi-Fi also sops up lots of power. 3G, besides being less power-hungry, has another big selling point: It allows consumers to access the Internet without any restrictions, while Wi-Fi service extends at most 100 meters from an access point.

Some cell-phone companies are looking to combine the best of both technologies, though the first products are likely to cost in the hundreds of dollars.

Motorola

(MOT)

announced in June it will soon start testing a cell phone that includes both 2.5G technology and Wi-Fi.

In one of the most potentially useful applications, cell-phone users could use voice-over IP on Wi-Fi enabled phones. "The idea is that you could roam between an enterprise network and off onto a wide area cell network, then back onto voice-over Wi-Fi when you're inside a hot spot," explains Allen Leibovitch, an analyst at IDC.

That's likely to remain only a goal for some time to come. One big hurdle will be figuring out how to bill consumers who roam on and off networks, which would require agreements among the many service providers now competing.

In the meantime, consumers will have to content themselves with Wi-Fi on their laptop. So far, it marks a rarity since the late '90s -- a tech advance that's actually useful and cheap enough to win a thumbs-up from the public.