Cordless Capers

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You've probably noticed that wireless is the buzz word of the hour. Telephones, personal digital assistants, computers--and all the things that you can attach to them, from mice to modems--are shedding their wires and taking on a life of their own. Even the Internet itself is being reborn as the Wireless Internet, with a horde of NASDAQ companies offering novel ways to connect sans cords.

Naturally enough, all this activity calls for a new silly abbreviation:

Wi-Fi. While nothing bores me more than new standards, look for Wi-Fi compatibility as you shop for wireless stuff. The name stands for "wireless fidelity"; what it means is that any network devices that are Wi-Fi certified can work together. Why should you care? Because increasingly, you'll be able to use these devices in public places like airport lounges, hotels and fast-food joints to find and hop onto high-speed connections to the Net.

Here's how it works. Say you have a Wi-Fi-compatible wireless network at home. Your desktop PC is connected to the Internet via a cable modem, and you have a wireless connection from your PC to a laptop. You can move around with your laptop from room to room, even take it out to the backyard swimming pool, and still connect wirelessly to your network, as well as to the great Net beyond. Your connection between the laptop and PC is fast, about 11 Mbps, the same speed as the Ethernet networks businesses use to interconnect their computers, by wires, at work. That's fast enough, by the way, to watch a movie on your laptop that's actually running in the DVD drive of your desktop 300 ft. away.

Today you can take that same laptop with the Wi-Fi wireless network card to the Austin Bergstrom Airport, in Austin, Texas. For a fee, you can connect to the Wi-Fi-compatible network there and roar out onto the Internet. Or go to any one of 30 hotels in Tampa, Fla., Phoenix, Ariz., and Austin and get online wirelessly from your room. By year's end, more than 1,000 hotels and 25 major airports in the U.S. are expected to offer this service; a dozen airports in Europe will also have it and be compatible. I'm told that a major coffee chain whose name I'm not allowed to mention will even be offering Wi-Fi service by the end of the year.

I haven't tried the airport service yet, so I don't know if there are other, hidden hells involved in connecting to a public, commercial wireless network. I did, however, set up one of the new generation of wireless networks. I used the Dell 4800LT Wireless PC Card ($139) for my laptop and the corresponding PCI Card ($179) for my desktop. Compaq, 3Com, Lucent and others also have Wi-Fi-compatible setups comparable to Dell's, which range in price from $100 to $300 per card.

The last time I tried to set up a wireless network at home, both my PC and, worse, my wife's crashed. The technology, happily, is much improved. Dell's system comes with a cd-rom that has a video-based setup tutorial that, among other things, explains--as well as shows--how to put a PCI card into your desktop machine. Once installed, the network performed smoothly and without glitches. I can't wait to start using it at the coffee shop.

For more on Wi-Fi and wireless networks, go to http://www.wirelessethernet.org. Questions for Josh? E-mail him at jquit@well.com