Wireless Net connection is speedy, convenient and gaining fans fast
By VIKAS BAJAJ / The Dallas Morning News
What do a pediatrician, the manager of an upscale hotel and two technology consultants have in common?
The high-speed wireless technology, which works off radio frequency signals, is sprouting up across the world and drawing a sizable and diverse following. Just consider these Dallas-area believers:
In the swanky West Village Starbucks, Dr. Michael Cowan reads medical journals and plans trips to Santa Fe, N.M., on his laptop. Downtown, Greg Champion has wired the august Hotel Adolphus so guests no longer have to schlep on dial-up. And a stone's throw from Southern Methodist University, David Livingston and Tony Lauro have aimed an antenna at Café Brazil so they can surf the Net while they plot ways to bathe the city in Wi-Fi.
RICHARD MICHAEL PRUITT / DMN
"56k [dial-up] doesn't do for anybody anymore," said Greg Champion, Hotel Adolphus managing director.
Short for wireless fidelity, Wi-Fi is cropping up in cafés, hotels, airports and parks. It's attracted an assortment of adherents from well-heeled Intel Corp., which envisions it sparking a new wave of computer sales, to self-styled guerrillas who want to create free community networks for all to share.
"What you are going to see is like mushrooms after a rain," said Bill Kleinebecker, a senior consultant at Technology Futures Inc. in Austin.
Wi-Fi's hot for two reasons: It's fast – 10 to 20 times faster than dial-up – and it's easy to install. Plug a Wi-Fi antenna – $100 – into a cable modem or digital subscriber line and within an hour you can be surfing the Net from your patio on a laptop equipped with a $50 antenna.
First used in offices and homes as a means of sharing Internet connections between computers, entrepreneurs started selling Wi-Fi subscriptions in public spaces in the late 1990s. At the same time, tech savants in California starting broadcasting their home connections to neighbors for free.
And while Wi-Fi's reach is limited and subscriptions are pricey, many business travelers and urban professionals say they're willing to fork over $30 to $70 a month.
Dr. Cowan pays $30 a month for unlimited use in any Wi-Fi-equipped Starbucks, where he often whiles away his days off from the emergency room at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth and Children's Medical Center in Dallas.
"I'm still not on the cutting edge of technology, but this seemed like such a neat technology," he said. "And it wasn't too expensive."
Mr. Champion, the Adolphus' managing director, said the hotel contracted with Austin-based WayPort Inc. to install Wi-Fi six months ago. "We heard it from our guests for the last year, year and a half: 56k [dial-up] doesn't do for anybody anymore."
The embattled technology industry likes the sound of that. Wi-Fi is proving to be a rare bright spot in an otherwise dreary market.
Intel is building Wi-Fi antennas into its new Centrino line of laptop chips so consumers don't have to buy a separate card. The chip company has also teamed up with IBM Corp. and AT&T Corp. to fund Cometa Networks Inc. That firm will seed the nation with 20,000 Wi-Fi networks.
"It validates the model," said Russ McGuire, an independent telecommunications analyst. "It reminds me of when AT&T launched their WorldNet service and it was basically $20 flat rate, and all of a sudden the Internet was real and the market just took off."
Others have been at it for years. WayPort started by wiring hotels for Internet connections in 1996. The company has adopted Wi-Fi technology as well and has networks in 525 hotels, including the Adolphus, and five major airports, including Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
The profit test
But experts remain unsure Wi-Fi whether can make money, the true test of its viability.
An early Wi-Fi pioneer, Richardson-based MobileStar Network Corp., went bankrupt in late 2001 after it couldn't raise money to cover its losses and continue growing. (T-Mobile USA, the cellular company, bought MobileStar's Starbucks and airport networks.)
While installing Wi-Fi in a single Starbucks is relatively cheap, putting it in thousands of public places can quickly add up. In addition to paying for the equipment, subscriptions must cover rent and the cost of Internet capacity and maintenance
"You have to have a dense penetration of customers," said Brian Modoff, an analyst with Deutsche Banc Alex.Brown.
Mr. Modoff contends it will prove cheaper and more efficient to upgrade cellular networks for high-speed data. While at their fastest, Wi-Fi would beat newer cellular systems, in most situations the two would be comparable. Cellular will benefit from being available in most places, not just in select cafés and hotels.
"If you are going to do this right, you have to do it broadly," Mr. Modoff said.
But for the time being, Wi-Fi has momentum. The handful of phone companies that control cellular networks don't have the money or the stomach for massive upgrades. Many, including T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless Services Inc., have said they'll use Wi-Fi to complement their cellular networks.
One big question Wi-Fi companies have yet to answer is: Can they work together?
Experts say Wi-Fi is being stifled because a subscriber to T-Mobile can't use WayPort's network without setting up another account. A cellular-style roaming arrangement would help both extend coverage and Wi-Fi's chances.
"It is always part of the challenge to get all of the major players to agree to a sensible and reasonable roaming agreement," said Dave Vucina, chief executive of WayPort, which has a roaming deal with AT&T Wireless.
T-Mobile says it's open to roaming on its terms. "Right now, we have got the biggest and baddest, over 2,000-site network, and they need to come and talk to us," said Laurie Stixrood, executive director and general manager of the company's HotSpot service.
Another challenge is getting Wi-Fi to more high-traffic public places. Most sought-after are national chains because of their easy-to-find storefronts.
"If I give you four or five brands in most cities, that's a form of ubiquity," Mr. Vucina said.
While the Wi-Fi companies work on their contracts, grass-roots movements are appealing to the communal spirit.
Mr. Livingston and Mr. Lauro lead the DFW Wireless Users Group, which is made up of enthusiasts who want to cobble together a free Wi-Fi system. A few members have already opened up their home networks, but the effort is in its infancy.
The group meets twice a month on Thursdays, often at the Café Brazil on Central Expressway just south of Yale Boulevard in University Park. When Mr. Livingston and Mr. Lauro approached the restaurant about installing Wi-Fi last spring, they received a lukewarm response.
So in the fall, Mr. Lauro pointed a Wi-Fi antenna down at the restaurant from a nearby office building. Voilà, problem solved.
"That's kind of why the free-net project is so important, because if we get all these access points up and people can access it with no trouble in certain areas with no direct cost to them, you got something," Mr. Livingston said.
So what does Café Brazil think of the Wi-Fi now?
Store manager Kirk Hampton said he wasn't privy to Mr. Lauro and Mr. Livingston's conversations with management. But he was itching to try the network, now that he knew it was there.
"I was not even aware of it," he said. "That's cool. ... I don't have a wireless card in my laptop, but I am definitely going to check it out."
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