RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Wireless: What exactly is it and why is it unreliable?

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I’ve been getting a lot of questions about wireless lately. You know, WiFi, the magical connection between laptop and Internet, the key to actually working at Starbucks? The questions vary from, “Why does my laptop just disconnect sometimes?” to, “How can I get wireless out by the pool?”

I tried to scrunch the answers down into a single column, but they kept bulging out of the seams. So I decided to split them into three consecutive columns. I wouldn’t ordinarily chain columns together, but wireless has become the hottest thing in business technology since cash. It deserves a lot of attention. Not only is it ubiquitous in coffee shops and hotels, but it’s now the connection of choice in home offices and other commercial buildings. It goes in faster than cable and can be moved when the office changes address. New office buildings are constructed to take wireless into account. Wireless gear flies off the shelves and into the homes of microbusinesses everywhere. Wireless is actually pushing up the sales of laptops and notebooks. It’s now an entire industry unto itself.

At one time, wireless was primarily the plaything of rebel techies in ragged shorts who saw no reason to show up at the office more often than need be. Today, the most buttoned-down of us tote laptops to every business meeting, confident we’ll find wireless no matter where we go. Convention hotels, normally the last to climb on any technological bandwagon, have reluctantly begun to provide wireless to conventioneers, albeit at additional cost. We love our WiFi.

So what is WiFi, anyway? The answer depends on your perspective. A salesperson might answer that WiFi “stands for wireless fidelity.” An electrical engineer might answer “802.11,” which is the technical protocol it uses. For most of us, WiFi is actually a variant of cell phone technology. It uses very high frequencies that make radio beams act more like light than like the lazier sweeps of the AM radio band. AM frequencies flow like muddy river water through almost everything but metal. If you could see WiFi, on the other hand, it might look more like cartoonish pulsing light that ricochets off of brick, metal and almost anything but wood and drywall. That’s why the ideal wireless hookup is literally line-ofsight-if you can see where you want to reach, you can probably get there.

But where is “there”? “There” is possibly an antenna fastened far above you, hidden in the forests of poles and vertical metal objects. Or it could be a small box with a similarly small antenna tucked away in a ceiling. It may well be out of line of sight with your computer, so making contact with it could be a chancy affair. Even worse, because WiFi bounces hither and yon between buildings or walls like machine gun bullets, the signals can combine in weird ways when they reach your computer. Software has to sort out the mess and pick out what makes sense from all the broken parts that don’t.

Of course, those signals are spat out from, and taken up by, both the computer and the stationary antenna, so reconstruction has to be done laboriously both ways. This slows down the promised data rate considerably, often making wireless seem lethargic, especially when compared against cabled networks, like those found in most buildings.

Getting to the Internet wirelessly can take a lot of links. First, there’s the obvious one from computer to antenna, but then the signal has to be processed in a local box, possibly sent to other boxes, and hooked to the Internet. It’s possible to be in excellent wireless contact and still not be able to get to Google.

Yet despite all this complexity, uncertainty and cost, WiFi is penetrating everywhere, second in growth rate only to cell phones. The lust for mobility is insatiable. “Hot spots” can be found just by walking along downtown streets, as signals radiate outward from building after building. Or you can find public hot spots, like the one on Monument Circle downtown. Many public sites are completely unsecured, which means there’s nothing to keep the guy next to you from picking up your signals, too. As with other technologies, you have to know the territory.

Keep these things in mind for next time, when the subject will be the computer, and how to hook up to WiFi from the customer end. After that, the third column will deal with building your own wireless network at home or in a small office. Larger offices are usually serviced by vendors, but individuals often go it alone, either in a home office or just around the house. Anyone can hook up WiFi, if you take some precautions. See you then.

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

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