Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Wireless Madness

January 2001

By Mike Gould

"I got no strings, to tie me down..." Pinocchio, as quoted by Walt Disney.

...And yet I can talk to the Internet at cable modem speeds, using my wife's laptop computer. All through the miracle of 802.11b, or WiFi.

WiFi = HiFi
WiFi stands for "Wireless Fidelity" (not "wifey's laptop") and is the name for a standard that enables laptops to talk to Local Area Networks (LAN's) and thence to the Internet. The reference to hi-fi here is apt: in the 1950's, stereo was unheard of (literally) and speakers were 3-inch jobbies that were good for listening to baseball games and little else, quality-wise. Then came the audio revolution and suddenly consumers could buy High Fidelity setups with big speakers and separate components.

The main difference is that WiFi is a standard monitored by a standards group, the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (http://www.wi-fi.org/), whereas anybody with a box to sell back in the fifties could call it HiFi, no matter how good it was. And it is just a wee bit more complicated getting computer peripherals to talk together than it is getting audio to plug and play.

Two to Tango
The components in question are a radio broadcaster that is the gateway to the Internet, and the wireless card installed in your laptop. These two communicate via radio waves, passing Internet Protocol packets (the bits of code that make up Internet communication) back and forth. One broadcaster can service a number of wireless cards; Apple's Airport system can accommodate 10 users, although that bandwidth is shared. This means that the more one person uses a connection to download large files, the slower everyone else's connection will be.

The range on these is not enormous; the Airport system is limited to 150 feet, but other systems can provide more, using external antennae. The Intel broadcaster has 2 short antennae and is good out to 500 feet. The intent here is not world-wide access, just a means to connect within an office or home.

Breaker, breaker, y'all got your ears on?
Once something has the WiFi sticker, it should talk to any other WiFi box. And that has been our experience at the U of M, where a lot of wireless activity has been taking place. The trick is getting the settings correct between the broadcast unit and the receiver. The WiFi consortium has been making efforts to make this a plug and play activity, but there are still a few rough spots. At the School of Education where I work, we recently got some Intel broadcasters we wanted to use with our Apple AirPort-equipped iBooks. It took some fiddling (a technical term), but we were successful. Next on the docket is getting some Dell laptops to talk to our Apple Airport broadcasters.

Airports and other public facilities are now starting to install broadcasters, so that travelers can check their email while waiting for delayed planes. (Sort of like installing mirrors next to elevators in hotels - if the customer has something to do while waiting, he or she will be less likely to complain about the wait.)

But why make things easy?
I said earlier that WiFi was a standard, not the standard. Because yet another way of doing this is on the horizon: HomeRF. Promoted by yet another standards committee, the Home Radio Frequency Working Group (http://www.homerf.org/), HomeRF has its basis in home use, as opposed to the theoretically office-based WiFi. HomeRF wants to have all your appliances work with them, including wireless phones, printers, and eventually toasters. Well, maybe not toasters; toasters will speak to electrical toothbrushes using yet another technology called BlueTooth (http://www.bluetooth.com/), which will arrive Real Soon Now. (This is yet another technical term, usually abbreviated as RSN. It means "It's right around the corner, so don't buy our competitor's product because it will be obsolete tomorrow afternoon.") And yet another standard, HomeCast Open Protocol (HOP), is out there as well. But let's not go there and stick to WiFi vs. HomeRF for the moment.

Until recently, HomeRF has been slow and expensive. That will change next year when faster equipment starts to show up at Radio Shack and other stores. WiFi has the current edge in that it has been available for some time (we've had our AirPort system for a year now) and is fairly cheap. The Airport system is $299 for the broadcaster and $99 for the receiver card, which only works in the latest iBooks and PowerBooks. Older PowerBooks and PC Laptops with PCMCIA card slots can use receiver cards costing around $150 from several vendors.

But these technologies are indeed incompatible; WiFi uses a wide-bandwidth means to communicate, while HomeRF uses something called frequency-jumping. What's a concerned laptop user to do? If you need it now, I'd recommend WiFi. It is cheap enough so that if HomeRF wins out in the end, it won't hurt much if you have to replace it. If you are in no hurry, you might want to wait for the first quarter of 2001; the HomeRF systems might be cheaper and more expandable (including digital wireless phone service, for instance).

But I suspect that both systems will be around for a while.

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