While some technologies experience incremental change over time, others are overturned by maverick ideas that seem to arrive from nowhere. In the world of wireless data access, that role is currently being played by a technology that was supposed to be about using radio waves to create small, short-range computer LANs. This technology, built on a networking standard called 802.11b, popularly known as Wi-Fi, is being used to create public "hot spots" where anyone with a wireless-enabled laptop can access the Internet without cables.
Wi-Fi hot spots began to appear in 2001 as individuals set up wireless networks connected to the Internet and invited anyone within range to share their high-speed connections. The idea caught on, and businesses jumped on board so quickly that most major airports, some hotels and, soon, 1,200 Starbucks locations host Wi-Fi hot spots today .
While 2.5G cellular networks will give computer users data access even from fast-moving cars, Wi-Fi hot spots provide access to data for semimobile users, says Kim Thompson, director of corporate communications for T-Mobile USA. A Bellevue, Washington, subsidiary of wireless carrier Deutsch Telecom, T-Mobile is working with Starbucks to set up such coffeehouse hot spots using Wi-Fi technology. "Wi-Fi is for customers who are going to be somewhere for a while and want to download chunks of data like a PowerPoint presentation," she says. T-Mobile and Starbucks will charge customers a fee for tapping into the wireless network.
Wi-Fi can move data at several megabits per second, many times faster than the 2.5G wireless data networks being deployed by cellular systems. But the signals are short-range, fading after a few hundred feet, so it's unlikely Wi-Fi hot spots will blanket the country as 2.5G promises to do. For that reason, a coexistence between Wi-Fi and 2.5G is likely. Cellular financier Murray says recent news of an IBM chip that lets wireless devices work with several types of networks makes that possibility even more likely. "It will allow you to sit down in an airport or a coffee shop with one of these devices and talk on it just like a cell phone," Murray says, "then jump frequencies and act like a Wi-Fi computer."