Keeping Up With Wi-Fi

During baseball season, the air at minor-league Raley Field in Sacramento, Calif., is filled with more than fly balls, cheers and the faint aroma of hot dogs and sauerkraut. Streams of data also pervade the stadium, the result of the magic of wireless Internet access, or Wi-Fi. Funded partly by chip giant Intel to show off its technology, the stadium network lets engineers monitor lights and heating from their handheld computers and allows luxury-box owners to check e-mail and surf the Net between innings. By the end of next season, team officials say, new Wi-Fi antennas will be installed all over the park; fans will order hot dogs and check out-of-town scores from the cheap seats; ticket takers will scan tickets with handheld PCs and greet fans by their first names. And the players--well, maybe they won't notice that everyone is suddenly staring at computer screens.

Over the past four years, Wi-Fi, a.k.a. 802.11, has evolved from for-geeks-only status to a feature that's included in most new laptops. Most nontechies know Wi-Fi from the airports, cafes and fast-food chains that offer wireless Net access to lure customers and get them to stay awhile. More recently the Wi-Fi wave has infected homes and businesses like the flu; it's now showing up in the unlikeliest of places, and new versions of the technology will push its adoption further and faster in the next few years. "It's increasingly a wireless world, and Wi-Fi is the technology that's here now and the one you can put under your Christmas tree," says Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit that monitors the standard.

A year ago, Wi-Fi "hot spots" were hard to find; now they're getting hard to avoid. At the new Hotel Commonwealth on Boston's Kenmore Square, Wi-Fi blankets the lobby and all the guest rooms. The hotel manager even claims he's seen Red Sox problem child Manny Ramirez Wi-Fi-ing in the lobby on his Palm. Many reporters at San Diego's North County Times use Wi-Fi. They say it's easier and actually faster than plugging into a land line. Down in Kingsport, Tenn., Eastman Chemical, an 83-year-old maker of plastics and industrial chemicals, gave its white-collar workers Wi-Fi laptops so they could work anywhere on the company's 600-acre campus. Clerks in Eastman's warehouses and factories track inventory and production on handheld PCs while engineers monitor chemical mixtures on their laptops.

The success of wireless technology is pressing tech companies to produce more wireless gadgets based on newer standards that fix some of Wi-Fi's shortcomings: 802.11g, for instance (as compared with the current, popular 802.11b standard), offers five times the bandwidth and allows more users to work off the same antenna. Companies like Linksys, Microsoft and Netgear are selling 802.11g "access points," or base stations, for about $100.

Wi-Fi's biggest limitation is range. Typical systems can transmit data up to 150 feet, but indoor walls and ceilings can cut that to 50 feet or less. A new technology called WiMax (802.16 in nerd-speak) will transmit up to 30 miles, enough to compete with DSL and cable lines in bringing the Internet to far-flung rural areas. Tech firms will begin selling WiMax equipment next year. Finally, there's a standard called 802.20, which is a few years away from widespread use. According to an Intel spokesperson, 802.20 will spread a high-speed "mushroom cloud" of Web access over metropolitan areas. And WiMax works at speeds of up to 155 miles per hour, making the Net available to passengers in fast-moving cars and trains. Then we'll be able to work on our way to work.