||Hooking up with Wi-Fi - 6 things
you're out of town on business or pleasure,
there's usually stuff to deal with back at the
You can't totally escape, so you
bring along a laptop. In between the beach or
meetings, you can get some work done.
have a broadband connection at work, it's hard for
many of us to stomach a dial-up line on the road.
That's why my laptop is Wi-Fi-enabled. I used my
wireless connection on a recent vacation to Maui.
I was cruising the Internet and checking e-mail at
blazing broadband speeds free of charge (more
about that in a moment).
There's a lot of
confusion about Wi-Fi. Here are six points to set
the record straight.
simply a network without wires.|
stands for "wireless fidelity." Many business
and home PC users use it to network computers.
Wi-Fi is known formally as 802.11. Isn't that
catchy? There are actually three standards,
denoted by letters appended to the numbers:
802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g.
||Wi-Fi is not
the same thing as 2.5G or 3G.|
latter two are telephone standards, which, among
other things, offer easy Web access. These
systems are widely available. Several companies
-- Sprint, AT&T Wireless and Verizon, to
name a few -- offer this service. If your
provider has service where you travel, you can
access the Internet.
So what's the big
difference? Speed! The telephone standards allow
you to download data at 40 to 70 kilobits per
second (Kbps). Wi-Fi can download at the speed
of a cable modem or T1 line. So, if the facility
that is providing Wi-Fi service uses a T1 line,
the download will probably run 1.5 Mbps. Look at
it this way: It's the difference between a 56K
modem and really fast broadband.
sometimes implies that Wi-Fi downloads data from
the Internet at 11 Mbps. It doesn't. It can't
download any faster than the modem or T1 line to
which it is attached. Still, 1.5 Mbps is a
relatively fast download.
are sprouting up everywhere.|
are thousands of Wi-Fi installations around the
country, and the number continues to balloon. A
few are free, run by altruistic individuals.
Many others are run by businesses such as
hotels, restaurants and coffee shops, to attract
business. Most charge for access.
several networks of Wi-Fi installations.
T-Mobile (www.tmobile.com), for example,
operates in more than 2,000 locations, known as
hotspots. Each hotspot accesses the Internet
though a T1 line.
According to its Web site,
T-Mobile has several plans and is aiming
specifically at the business traveler. It has
hotspots in Starbucks coffeehouses, airport
lounges and Borders Books & Music
Another large network is Boingo
Wireless (www.boingo.com). It doesn't own its
hotspots. Rather, it contracts with people who
already have them. Boingo has arranged for more
than 5,000 hotspots, about half of which are
live, most located in hotels and restaurants.
They range from DSL hookups at 385 Kbps to T1
Wi-Fi isn't always easy to find.|
why doesn't everyone use Wi-Fi? Despite the
growth of the networks, access can still be a
Once you get outside airports,
restaurants, coffee shops and hotel lobbies,
there isn't much service. The telephone-based
systems are much more widely available. So, if
you're at the airport, you probably have access
to Wi-Fi. But if you're moseying through Stuck,
Wash., or Scratch Ankle, Ala., you'll most
likely need a telephone system.
change. Cometa Networks, a consortium of
AT&T, IBM and Intel, promises to build
20,000 hotspots by the end of 2004. Cometa is a
wholesaler; it plans to sell the hotspots to
retailers. It has partnerships with McDonald's
restaurants, Barnes & Noble Booksellers,
Tully's Coffee, and other retailers across the
country. In at least one of its pilot programs
with McDonald's in 2003, users got an hour of
Internet access with an Extra Value
Other companies also have announced big
plans for Wi-Fi. Boosters talk of wall-to-wall
Wi-Fi someday. "Someday" is the operative word;
hotspots still can be few and far between
secure Wi-Fi connections.|
and 802.11b have been using a security standard
known as Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP),
considered by some to be a hacker's delight. WEP
encrypts data, but the key, which is used to
encrypt and decrypt, is relatively easy to
break. An expert hacker snooping on you 10 feet
away could break your encryption.
however, employs a newer encryption standard,
Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), which isn't
perfect but is considered to be much more secure
than WEP. Microsoft already has updated Windows
XP to handle WPA. Many Wi-Fi providers still
must implement WPA (which, in turn, is
considered an interim solution until the new
802.11i network security standard is ratified in
2004 or later).
T-Mobile is frank about
warning that its data signal is broadcast in the
open and clear. Passwords and usernames are
encrypted. Other than that, you're on your own.
T-Mobile encourages customers to use virtual
private networks (VPNs).
VPNs are software
programs that use the Internet. But they are
password-protected and use 128-bit encryption,
which is virtually unbreakable. Corporations
usually set up VPNs, which provide a secure
tunnel into a company server. The data still
could be intercepted, but it would be unreadable
without the encryption key.
encourages customers to use a VPN. And it
provides a VPN for users who do not already have
one, greatly enhancing security. The Boingo VPN
sends the encrypted data to a Boingo server,
which decrypts it and sends it to its
destination over the Internet.
can buy VPN software to set up their own
security. There are a number of manufacturers,
two of which are Watchguard Technologies and
SonicWall. You could also use a product such as
GoToMyPC, which does not require software. Once
set up, you have complete access to your office
computer from any computer with Internet access.
You can check e-mail and work on files, just
like you were in the office. (Disclosure:
GoToMyPC is a sponsor of my weekly radio show.
But I use GoToMyPC at home to get to my office
computer and I like it very much.)
geared for more adept computer
Wi-Fi is not for the
uninitiated. For example, Boingo customers
cannot access T-Mobile's network, or vice versa.
That means when you travel, you must carefully
plan your Web jaunts. It's as if you had to sign
up with different telephone companies to be sure
of having a connection. Boingo and T-Mobile have
begun working together. They plan to make mutual
access available someday.
inconvenience is nothing compared to the
possibility of being hacked. If you want to surf
the Internet at an airport, you should be OK.
But someone nearby using specialized software
could watch your transmissions, unless you are
using a VPN. Even using a password to enter your
business or personal mailbox could be
Only you can decide if Wi-Fi is
safe enough for your situation. A huge criminal
business has been built on stolen identities. If
you are transmitting data in the clear, someone
could be watching.