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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Here's the secret to painless wireless hookups

July 11, 2005

Last time, in the June 27 issue, we explored the basics of data WiFi, which is often just called "wireless." This time, we'll look at how you hook up your laptop or notebook to a wireless provider.

Wireless works pretty much like a cell phone does, except that you're exchanging data packets, not voice. Therefore, you need the computer equivalent of a cell phone. Most new notebook computers come with built-in wireless hardware that you'll never physically see, because it's inside the case. If you don't have a built-in unit, you may need a PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) card that will slip into the port in the side of the notebook. If your computer is fairly old, there may not be such a port, and you'll have to use one of the clunkier USB-connected units.

If you don't even have a USB port, you might think about trading up for some new computer gear. Some PCMCIA cards have external antennas, and these help you grab feebler signals, although they are prone to getting snagged on things. Most of the cards cost less than $100.

Windows XP and the Apple Macintosh have software that works immediately with wireless hardware the instant you install it, but if you have anything else, you may need to load the wireless manufacturer's software along with the card. You should then be ready to go on the air. Trot down to a known "hot spot" such as a coffee shop and fire up the computer. You should soon see a list of the available connections. Then it's just a matter of signing on.

If the hot spot is free, just log on and you're ready to surf. If the hot spot is payas-you-go, you'll need an account with one or more carriers. Companies like TMobile (www.tmobile.com) and Boingo (www.boingo.com) have split up the market for hotels, airports, restaurants and other gathering spots, making it necessary to either seek out a place that does business with your carrier, or have multiple accounts with several providers.

For a long time, these hot spots were like little oases of connectedness in an ocean of nothing but cellular voice. That's changing fast. Providers are starting to offer general wireless coverage that doesn't require a trip to a hot spot. Verizon, (www.verizon.com) for example, has an $80 per month service that lets you log onto the Internet from just about anywhere in the Indianapolis metro area. Using such a service, you can not only sit out by your own pool and work, you can lounge on a boat in the middle of Geist Reservoir and still log on. It's essentially cell phone technology for notebook computers. You'll need a more expensive PCMCIA card for this kind of coverage, though. The cards run about $100, but you can often get them thrown into the deal when you sign up.

The growth of wireless broadband has paralleled the history of cellular growth. Major providers focus first on major metropolitan areas, leaving the intervening spaces intermittently covered or not at all. A map of cellular coverage from many years ago shows that Interstate 69 between Muncie and Fort Wayne had little or no signal, rendering phones almost useless in that stretch. The same is true today of wireless in many places. However, entrepreneurs are filling in the vacancies even more quickly than they did for cell phone service.

Omnicity (www.omnicity.com) is an example. It has extensive coverage in counties the major players won't get to for quite some time, like Rush and Jay. It even has some presence in Marion County, although the company will have to do battle with giants like Verizon in that locale. Most rural carriers will probably be purchased by the big boys, and many are getting into the business solely to be bought out. In the meantime, they're often a good alternative in areas that don't have affordable cable or DSL, and where satellite broadband doesn't work well or is prohibitively expensive.

Don't assume the marketing buzz term "wireless broadband" ensures that you'll get a really fast connection. You won't. If you're lucky enough to find an ideal spot for a signal, you'll still get little more than about what you'd receive from DSL. If you're logging on from inside a building, or with lots of obstructions around you, the speed will drop quickly as your computer struggles to make sense of the fractured data stream.

The selling point for wireless isn't reliability or speed; it's convenience. And, of course, keep in mind always that you're broadcasting data, so security is even more of an issue. Unless you can secure your signal, don't do online banking on wireless. Next time, I'll go into some detail about security, as I look at how to set up your own wireless network at home.



Altom is a systems interaction designer for Indiana University, based at IUPUI. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at tim@elementassoc.com.
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