Children of the wireless revolution

Imagine watching a movie from your home collection while waiting in an airport a thousand miles away. Or video-commuting to a grandchild's party from an off-shore yacht. Or having a technician retune your engine remotely as you wait at a roadtrip lunch stop.

A technical revolution is under way in isolated "hot spots," which offer wireless Internet access with connection speeds that may soon make possible all of the above - plus e-mail anywhere.

Yet an anticipated battle between delivery methods - big telecom companies versus smaller service providers - is likely to shape the telecommunications landscape for years to come.

Last year, industry giants introduced the third generation (3G) of wireless phones. Now, mobile data-transmission speeds twice that of a home computer modem are transforming the cellphone into a multipurpose communications tool, with features such as digital photography and wireless gaming.

Mark McHale, a communications director for Sprint, says 3G-users will soon be able "to listen to Internet radio, watch television, and even play a movie."

In the other corner is Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity. Initially developed to create small wireless hot spots within a home or office, standard Wi-Fi antennae send a signal only about 30 feet.

But Jim Selby, an Aspen, Colo., ski bum turned self-proclaimed "digital freedom fighter," incorporated innovations that extended that range to about 30 miles - creating a 120-square-mile infrastructure around Aspen, offering wireless connection speeds that rival those of large networks. When users fire up a Wi-Fi-ready laptop and discover Mr. Selby's hot spot, they are offered a daily, weekly, or monthly connection for a fee. After entering their credit card number, they are online.

According to research firm Gartner, there will be approximately 29,000 such hot spots in North America by the end of this year - from truck stops to retail stores to whole neighborhoods.

The corporate world is beginning to embrace Wi-Fi as well: Manufacturers are offering Wi-Fi equipped laptops and personal digital assistants, and a growing number of airports, cafes, and parks have hot spots. In June, McDonalds announced plans for in-store hot spots in Chicago and San Francisco, including free access with certain burgers. United Parcel Service is already using Wi-Fi to improve productivity. This year, Wimbledon was equipped with public-access Wi-Fi.

"In three years, everyone in the US will have access to a wireless connection," Selby predicts.

Yet, a battle for consumer access is brewing: Licensed 3G from the big telecoms squaring off against unlicensed Wi-Fi. "At the moment, it looks like 3G is coming along as a metered 'charge by the minute' method, based on the telephone model," says Skip Pizzi of Microsoft. "Whereas Wi-Fi is generally unmetered and appears to lend itself better to long-term usage, such as for radio listening."

What may tip the scales soon is the next generation of Wi-Fi. At anticipated connection speeds 25 times faster than current capabilities, a user could download an hour of CD-quality music in less than one second. And the potential for distributing audio, video, and multimedia presentations over Wi-Fi is expected to raise the eyebrows of media producers, opening whole new markets for distribution.

Despite the exponential growth of hot spots, security is a big concern in the corporate world. Moving the Internet from wires to the air only makes a hacker's life easier. Although Wi-Fi does have a moderate level of built-in security, work is under way to develop encryption systems to enhance it.

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