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Would you like some Microsoft with your double mocha? Or some corporate intranet while you're waiting for your flight? Broadband wireless networks are starting to invade unlikely locales across the United States. The biggest sign that wireless networks in public places are going mainstream is the recent deal among Starbucks, Microsoft and MobileStar to install wireless networks in the majority of Starbucks coffeehouses over the next few years.
Unlike the Internet cafes we're used to, customers will bring their own wireless-enabled laptops, mobile phones and handhelds to access local information and shop online at T1 speeds. Some services will be free; others will incur charges. Registered MobileStar customers will also have access to e-mail and corporate intranets. MobileStar service plans will likely start at around $15.95 per month.
Odd as working out of a Starbucks may seem, this trend will be good news for businesspeople who have been stuck with either hunting down a phone jack or using a painstakingly slow mobile phone modem to get their laptops online outside the office. Just think of these newly enabled locations as Internet pit stops.
MobileStar isn't the only name in the game. Competitors Wayport and Metricom are busy installing their own wireless broadband visions. Wayport uses the same wireless Ethernet technology as MobileStar. Its networks are installed primarily in airports and hotels. Metricom's Ricochet service doesn't just cover a coffeehouse or a hotel, but a whole city with 128Kbps wireless Internet and corporate network access. Currently available in major cities like Dallas, New York City and San Diego, the service has prices starting at $49 per month.
Anybody who finds the MobileStar and Wayport concepts attractive will have to prepare their equipment before taking advantage of it. For laptops, a wireless LAN PCMCIA card is required. Cisco, Dell and 3Com, among others, make cards that cost less than $200. Wireless Ricochet-compatible modems run $100 to $200.
This isn't just plain Web surfing, but high-speed access to business files and applications while stuck in traffic, taking a coffee break or visiting a client on location. For entrepreneurs willing to pay for hardware and fees, all this wireless network activity promises a more mobile, connected office.