Spoutin' Off: Perhaps region might become 'hot' for Wi-Fi

By Michael Rau

October 17 2005

A recent announcement by Google stating their desire to provide free wireless access to the entire city of San Francisco through widespread deployment of Wi-Fi caught my attention and I'd like to elucidate on its implications.

Wi-Fi is short for wireless fidelity (where that term came from, I have no clue) and is the catchall phrase referring to the common method used for the transfer of data via radio. Many of you may already be using some form of Wi-Fi in wireless home networks.

The current industry standard, known as IEEE 802.11, is utilized in virtually all wireless data transfer devices (except Bluetooth-enabled equipment). Transfer speeds via Wi-Fi vary from 11 MBs to 100 MBs, depending on the particular sub-standard used.

Wi-Fi works like a two-way radio system. Its major limitation is range. Unless the signal is boosted or repeated, the connection is currently only achievable within a couple of hundred feet of the central transceiver. It requires only an appropriate transceiver card for your computer (as little as 20 bucks, depending on configuration) to be accessed.

Initially, it was large companies which started deploying wireless networks within their workplaces. The reason was obvious: If you have 100 computers which need to be online, you could either have 100 hard-wired connections installed or use one central wireless connection hub with each computer accessing the network through its own wireless transceiver.

Additionally, a worker could carry his or her laptop anywhere in the building (or within the range of the central transceiver) and instantly access the network without having to find someplace to plug-in for a connection.

So now you have large companies with wireless Internet access in many localities. It took almost no time for hackers to discover that they could sit outside these buildings with wireless networks and access the Internet with a laptop and a Wi-Fi card.

Soon, an individual could buy a device that would sniff out the signals from Wi-Fi networks. And soon after that, lists of locations where a Wi-Fi signal could be accessed started showing up online. These became known as "hotspots."

Next came hospitality businesses like coffee shops and hotels, which started offering Wi-Fi access as a means of drawing in business.

And those businesses that had unsecured networks and didn't appreciate hackers stealing their bandwidth, started securing their networks against outside intrusions.

At about the same time, some broad thinkers, especially those concerned that the have-nots in our society would fall farther behind the haves without access to the online world, envisioned a circumstance where all the surplus bandwidth unused by all the disparate wireless networks could be used to bridge this gap.

Non-profit organizations soon emerged with the goal of finding this excess bandwidth and creating a mechanism for its redistribution through negotiation and a little arm-twisting with the owners of the networks.

Now, thanks to the efforts of these folks, as well as the generosity of the network owners, there are localities where you can find dozens of hot spots providing free, legal Internet access via Wi-Fi.

And that's just the beginning.

There are entire communities - even countries - that are building publicly-accessible, free wireless Internet networks. Their goal ostensibly is to ensure universal Internet access to all their residents. Soon, the idea of hotspots may be passé as entire cities become "hot."

American cities leading this movement are New York, Philadelphia, Portland ,Ore., Seattle, and yes, Richmond. Conversely, no city in Hampton Roads falls into the list of the top 100 wireless communities. In fact, there are only 15 hotspots in all of Greater Hampton Roads compared to over 200 in San Francisco alone. You can find a list of locations where such service is available at this URL: http://metrofreefi.com/free-wifi-listing-by-city.php

The difference is that in those communities where free wireless flourishes, companies with surplus bandwidth join the network and share their capacity - here in Hampton Roads, not a single company outside the hospitality industry participates.

Here's where Google comes in.

Simply put, Google wants everyone to have Internet access so that they'll use Google's services.

Turning an entire city into a Wi-Fi network isn't simple, but it's nothing compared to building a wired network. San Francisco's a good choice since they're already halfway there. Google's business muscle can make it happen and hopefully create a model for communities like ours.

You'd think that in a metropolitan area with as much high-tech industry as we have here, we'd be a little farther along the curve. Maybe Google's community Wi-Fi network effort in San Francisco will teach business leaders in Hampton Roads how (and why) to move into the 21st century.

(Note: If any business in Hampton Roads wants to become part of this movement, or learn more about why yours should, drop me a note and I'll put you in touch with people who can make that happen.)

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

Copyright © 2005, Daily Press