In the Zone

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Consumers will be stashing computer cables in the same closet with their electric typewriter and Betamax VCR if Wi-Fi advocates have their way.

Wireless Fidelity, also known as 802.11 or Wi-Fi, could be the development that unshackles Netizens from their workstations and allows access to the Internet virtually anywhere. Wi-Fi uses a low-power radio signal, instead of cables, to connect computers and peripherals with one another and to the Internet. All that's needed is an access point, or base station, as a transmitter and a computer Wi-Fi card that serves as an antenna.

While consumers can create these high-speed Wireless Local Area Networks in their homes and businesses in their plants, many observers see potential for faster growth in Wi-Fi public access points, or "hot spots." Hot spots are already being set up in cafes, hotel lobbies and airport lounges. Municipalities including Long Beach, Calif., are setting up public access points spanning larger, downtown areas. Grassroots groups of Wi-Fi enthusiasts are creating their own public hot spots, such as the one NYCwireless has in Manhattan's Bryant Park.

In a pastime called "war driving," a hacker armed with laptop computer and antenna can drive around accessing various WLANs.

SETTING UP HOT ZONES

The range of the typical home or office WLAN is usually less that 200 feet, but some of the more ambitious Wi-Fi proponents are trying to go beyond hot spots by stringing together a series of access points into "hot zones" or regional "mesh networks." Wi-Fi will inevitably move out of the exclusive airport lounge and the pricey Starbucks cafe.

Predicts C. Brian Grimm, marketing director at the Wi-Fi Alliance, an association that certifies Wi-Fi equipment: "Wi-Fi will become kind of a utility." He sees the laptop evolving into an "information appliance."

And marketers are sure to follow.

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