Ed Driscoll



The industry that provides wireless local area networks — which give users wireless access to the Internet in public locations such as libraries, airports and coffee shops — is becoming a crowded one.

So many companies are putting up wireless LANs that a recent report by investment research firm ARCchart found that WLAN providers could pose a risk to the success of next-generation (3G) wireless operators. The research firm said WLANs could eat up as much as 64 percent of 3G revenues in the next four years.

I have a feeling wireless 802.11 LANs are going to be big, really big (sorry to get all Shatnerian on you there). Cable television began in the late 1940s, when the first cables were strung to provide television reception to people whose antennas were blocked by hills. Nobody imagined then that people with perfectly good broadcast TV reception would pay to have cable run into their homes so that they could watch a hundred channels of all news, all weather, all movies, and all music videos.

Wireless today feels a bit like history repeating. Today, the first transmitters and repeaters that power wireless Internet and Ethernet networks are being strung up around a few cities, office campuses, and even high-tech residential neighborhoods. Hundreds of airports, hotels, and loads of Starbucks coffeehouses offer wireless Internet service to their customers. Even Amtrak has recently begun experimenting with wireless on a few trains. Wireless could change how people interact with the Internet potentially even more than cable modems and DSLs.

I first purchased an 802.11 wireless PCMCIA card for my laptop because I wanted to be able to work around the house and not have to worry about plugging it into a LAN outlet. It was only after I purchased the card, that I discovered that I could also get broadband (for a fee) at all sorts of other locations. It was invaluable on my last trip to New York in February, as I could use it at the San Jose airport, the Dallas airport and JFK, as well as several Manhattan Starbucks. I suspect that five or ten years from now, some sort of wireless broadband connection will be available throughout most cities.