A few years ago, a commercial aired that featured a hip-looking fellow plugging away at his laptop—checking his e-mail, surfing the Web, downloading music. What was different about this guy was that he was on the roof of a skyscraper, and there were no wires connecting his computer to anything.
At the time, this seemed like magic, or like something out of Star Trek. Now, it’s ubiquitous. It’s called Wi-Fi—the “Wi” standing for “wireless” and the “Fi” for “fidelity”—and it’s not just the wave of the future; it’s the wave of the present.
It’s been a long time since 36-bit modems were the gold standard in Internet connectivity. Indeed, dial-up, while still popular, is heading the way of the 8-track. While cable modems still have a healthy share of the market, more and more spaces—both public and private—are becoming hot spots. There’s a plan in place to make the entire city of Philadelphia one big wireless network, and similar proposals have been made for Central Park and other public areas of New York. More and more, new residential developments feature built-in wireless service from the get-go
Like Kleenex to tissues, Wi-Fi is actually a brand name that refers to the umbrella technology of wireless local area networks, or WLANs. Generally, there are several access points, which broadcasts the name of its network at a frequency near 2.4 GHz—a frequency that, unlike those of radio or television, is not owned by anyone (at least, not yet). These transmissions are called beacons.
“It works similar to a cordless phone, working in a certain megahertz frequency,” says Tim Hunter, CEO of New York-based Sensible Telecom, “but rather than voice, you can send anything—like bandwidth from the Internet.”