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Consider this: Pretty soon, you won't be out of touch with the office ever again. It won't matter whether you're searching for enlightenment in the Himalayas, a suntan in Polynesia or a sale in Kabul. Internet access points are planned for all those places--as well as coffee shops, hotels and other heavily trafficked points in between. There will still be places to hide out, but not in the airplanes flying overhead. Internet access is coming to air travelers with 802.11-enabled (Wi-Fi) notebooks, too. Never having to miss a single e-mail or afternoon-long videoconference has its good and bad points, of course. Connectivity increases your opportunity to work anywhere, at any time, but it also interrupts you while on vacation. Think of it as a continuation of your pager and cellphone experiences--times 10.
It won't happen tomorrow or next week, and wirelessness won't replace the wired network, an indispensable backhaul for high-speed communications. But it may accomplish something that the FCC has failed miserably at--loosening the Baby Bells' stranglehold on the "last mile" of communications. Unregulated wireless bands offer would-be ISPs the opportunity to end-run entrenched telecom interests--not just with Wi-Fi, but also with fixed wireless and other radio types.
Whatever the solution, Wi-Fi seems to have a role to play. Sean Maloney, executive vice president of Intel's Communications Group, calls it "the most revolutionary technology . . . since the Internet browser," and he predicts it will "do for computing what cellphones did for voice communication." Sure, the term "revolutionary" gets overworked. But if Wi-Fi, or wirelessness overall, has anything like the impact of cellphones and the Internet, then that would be revolutionary, wouldn't it? We can't draw a clear picture of the wireless future yet, but some tantalizing glimpses are emerging.
With cheap wireless hardware being installed everywhere from McDonald's restaurants to Mount Everest (see "No Strings Attached" below), fairly widespread Internet access is really only a matter of time. Of course, that will still be just a retrofit on an infrastructure mostly laid down decades before high-speed data transfer was even conceived. But what if you didn't have to string cable around buildings, dig up streets for optical fiber or deal with the limits of telephone and cable switches? The trend for new master-planned communities nationwide is to lay down the infrastructure for wired and wireless voice, data and video in advance, says Marc Lamb, national sales manager of CompUSA's Home Integration business. His unit acts as a "technology concierge" to homeowners and businesses in these developments, including a rather ambitious one just opening in the Los Angeles suburb of Marina del Rey.
Residential, commercial and retail buildings in the 1,086-acre Playa Vista development are pre-wired for Ethernet and broadband Internet connectivity as well as the usual electricity, cable TV and telephone services. Built-in outlets, servers and routers let residents and businesses add communication upgrades to mortgage or lease payments as easily as they do their carpeting and lighting choices. Playa Vista homes are ready for future appliances and entertainment/computer systems to be controlled by wireless touch panels, like Microsoft's Mira or Viewsonic's AirPanel, adds Derek Fraychineaud, construction director. The gates and garage doors respond to radio frequency bugs mounted in car windows or key fobs. The goal is to let Playa Vistans check e-mail; share files and printers; videoconference; or browse the community intranet from home, the grocery store or the park as easily as from the office. Hardware and labor costs are negligible when capabilities are added from the ground floor up, explains Fraychineaud, and everything just works better when it's not dragged down by legacy systems.
This isn't just technology in search of customers, says Kneko Burney, chief market strategist for research firm In-Stat/MDR. More than 65 percent of U.S. workers spend all or part of their workdays in remote locations--40 million of them in home offices. In-Stat reports that 75 percent of new developments are, at the very least, being "wired" for broadband.
Wireless technology is coming to your car, too. In addition to windshield transmitters to open gates and signal tollbooths, companies like MeshNetworks are building Wi-Fi networks several miles wide. They will be used to time traffic lights or monitor public safety, says Peter Stanforth, chief technology officer for MeshNetworks, or combined with other wireless technologies like RFID for in-car networks and systems control. For example, when the air bag of a car in front of you goes off, it could send a signal to activate your anti-lock brakes. Other uses are ad hoc voice, data and video networks among handhelds and vehicles of police, firefighters and other emergency personnel.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.