The addition of wireless links in enterprise Local-Area Networks (LANs) continues to ramp up as organizations look to expand their network without rewiring while providing mobility to in-house LAN users. But what's really driving the growth of wireless-LAN (WLAN) is the rollout of hot spots, public access points that supply Internet and e-mail access to anyone with a Wi-Fi 802.11b-enabled laptop or PDA. More and more, laptops come with embedded Wi-Fi as a growing number of hot spots makes it easier than ever to connect from hotels, airports, restaurants, and other public areas.
One of the oldest and largest access-point providers is Wayport Inc. Founded in 1996, Wayport has grown to a 185-person company that offers both wired and wireless access in 565 hotels, 13 airports (including Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, Seattle-Tacoma, and San Jose), and 75 McDonald's restaurants in the San Francisco-San Jose area. Cell-phone carriers Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon provide access points as well. T-Mobile offers access in over 2000 Starbucks coffee shops. Startup Cometa Networks also is rolling out hot spots, with hundreds in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Washington.
It's estimated that there are about 20,000 active hot spots today. An additional projection from Wayport indicates that this number could grow to nearly 46,000 by the end of 2004. Another projection by the Gartner research company says that there could be as many as 120,000 hot spots worldwide by 2007. If that healthy growth potential comes true, there will be very few places where wireless connection to the Internet isn't possible.
Most access points use the base 802.11b Wi-Fi standard. Faster 802.11a and 802.11g chips are becoming more common in laptops and plug-in interface cards, but few hot spots can handle them yet. They're on their way, though. The 802.11a/g standards will provide access speeds up to 54 Mbits/s, though that rate is rarely achieved in a real-world connection because of noise and extended distances from the access point.
A lack of security isn't keeping subscribers away, either. Dan Lowden, vice president of marketing for Wayport, says that the company doesn't enable security options at its hot spots. Very few hot spots actually use security measures, although virtually all Wi-Fi chips have them built in. Most users tend to access general-interest Web sites or noncritical e-mail. Those users who need to access and send very sensitive material probably don't use wireless. If wireless use is a necessity, companies can set up a virtual private network (VPN) to ensure secure transmission.
Lowden also says that the key to making the whole hot-spot phenomenon work is roaming. If users can't get their hot-spot service where they are, chances are they can link into any existing system and make their connection via a roaming agreement with another carrier (similar to the roaming arrangements that exist in the cell-phone world). In fact, Wayport already has roaming agreements with Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon.
While the core of the Wi-Fi movement is an empowered laptop, some PDAs now come with this wireless interface. Cell phones may get it as well, but that doesn't make much sense to me. If you haven't tried it yet, get an interface card for your laptop and make a go of it. Most likely, you'll see Wayport's window pop up, greeting you to the wireless Internet. It's a great technology that bears following. I'll have lots to say about it in the coming year.