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Look ma, no wires

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It's real name is IEEE 802.11b, but that's not what you call it,thank God. The common name for this jumble of digits and letters is Wi-Fi, and it's the reason you can get online, sans cords, in Starbucks and airports around the nation. A darling of the shell-shocked tech industry (it was one of a few sectors whose fortunes climbed in dread 2001), wireless technology is already replacing traditional LANs in homes and offices. But it holds the promise of being much more, and could eventually bring broadband to rural areas and connect all our various devices wherever we are. But that will only come after a considerable (heard this one before?) shakeout.

R&D folk have been exploring wireless data transmission for decades, but Wi-Fi as we know it only emerged when Macintosh released its Airport technology in 2000. While the original version was a little buggy, the Airport (which Apple sold for $300), coupled with the PC cards ($100 a pop) required by each computer to access the wireless network, proved popular with consumers.

Flash forward, and now companies from Lucent to Intel to Microsoft all have plans involving Wi-Fi or similar methods of leaving the physical pipes out of the bandwidth equation. Wi-Fi has its critics, however. The 802.11b standard uses the 2.4-GHz frequency, what one tech insider refers to as "the radio wave junkyard." In other words, the 11-megabyte-per-second transmission speeds promised by Wi-Fi get exponentially slower when you fire up that network in the vicinity of cordless phones and/or microwave ovens. In addition to possible interference, a major issue is whether Wi-Fi vendors will be able to plug the gaping security holes that now plague the standard. The real fix may arrive in the form of hardware that is essentially standard agnostic; that is, able to use competing standards like 802.11g, which uses a less-trafficked frequency and should facilitate better security measures.

But regardless of its quasi-nascent state, wireless data transmission seems to be capturing the imagination of a broadband-hungry public. Because the 2.4-GHz frequency is unlicensed—anyone can use it—and the price of hardware has dropped precipitously, the technology is becoming accessible to the home tech hobbyist. "This is spurring a trend in rural communities to establish wireless ISPs," says Dylan Brooks, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research.

Another development likely to add fuel to the wireless fire is the easy detection technology appearing in everything from Mac's new operating system to Microsoft XP. "This is the next frontier," says Brooks. "People used to need some technical expertise just to get wireless access to work."

What this means to advertisers, however, isn't immediately apparent. The ISP revolution is more of an "evolution," says Brooks. According to Jupiter data, 70 percent of Americans can get broadband if they want it. Even if wireless bridged that 30 percent gap overnight—which it won't, he says—it wouldn't change the fundamentals of online advertising. But that doesn't mean wireless doesn't offer interesting possibilities. Because wireless access is site specific, the technology could be used to deliver ads offering discounts at a Gap store whenever a user dropped in at the Starbucks across the street.

To learn more about wireless data technologies, try the excellent resource site: www.80211-planet.com.