Digital Media Europe is reporting that the city of Preston in the UK has gone wireless. And Nantucket Island is giving one megabit-per-second WiFi access to residents and visitors over an area of 800 acres. These hot-zones are just the latest in a growing tidal wave of wireless-ness that started in the US with a few hot-desk offices and a few wireless home networks. Then a couple of far-thinking university campuses went wireless so students could access the Web, the Internet, e-mail, online communities, and collaborative learning tools without having to find somewhere to physically jack into the campus intranet.
Then Starbucks put WiFi hotspots in its coffee shops to attract people in to check their e-mail (and buy an espresso). Then hotspots went into airport lounges. Now McDonalds is putting hotspots in its outlets; hotel chains and conference venues are becoming wireless zones; and many industrial parks, corporate campuses and town centers have joined the bandwagon. It is relatively cheap and easy for a business to set up a WiFi hotspot, and users cover the operating costs. And it gives a competitive edge to businesses trying to attract customers.
What is remarkable about this is how fast it has happened. From nowhere, WiFi became a $7 billion business in 2003. A year ago there were 28,000 hotspots around the world (12,000 of them in the US). WiFi was still young. A mid-2003 MORI survey in the UK revealed that while one in three people knew what a WiFi hotspot was, most had no idea at all:
5 percent of all respondents thought it was a nightclub, while 10 percent of single respondents identified it as a nightclub
2 percent of all respondents thought that it was something smelly that has been left out in the sun for too long
2 percent thought that it was a new hi-fi
1 percent thought that it was a posh hot tub
1 percent thought that it was a sunbed
1 percent thought that it was a microwave ready meal
1 percent of married respondents identified it as trouble with the wife
10 percent of 15-to-24-year-olds in the UK thought a Wi-Fi hotspot was an area with good mobile phone reception.
An ABI research forcast 200,000 hotspots worldwide by 2007, with growth in Europe outstripping that in the US.
In parts of the US, WiFi devices are becoming as ubiquitous as mobile phones (true, you can surf the web on those too, and you don't need to be near a WiFi hotspot to do it -- though WiFi mobile phones have recently made an appearance on the market). All you need is a wireless device, say a laptop with a wireless card (pretty much standard in most laptops today) or a wireless PDA, and you have instant high-speed access to the Internet. You also need an account with the hotspot provider. But with hotspots mushrooming, competition is pushing down already low access costs.
To find out if you are in range of a wireless LAN, you simply have to turn on your laptop, PDA or pocket PC. But that can be awkward. So now you can get a key-ring size device that acts like a WiFi geiger counter, detecting nearby hotspots. All for less than $30.
This little device can't tell you anything about the networks in your vicinity, other than direction and signal strength. So an alternative is to download for free a copy of NetStumbler, which will tell you a great deal about the wireless LANs within range, and help you log on. NetStumbler is an indispensible piece of software for avid Wardrivers -- sort of modern-day train-spotters who like to roam around finding and documenting available wireless networks. But be warned, it is illegal to use a corporate LAN without authorization, and hopping on to check your e-mail is as illegal as hopping on to steal confidential information.
When the latest WiFi standard, 802.11i, rolls out in a month or two, many of the security fears that have kept corporate LANS hardwired will disappear, further boosting the number of wireless devices capable of using public WiFi hotspots. Corporate wireless network admins are getting a lot smarter about security. Eventually home users will too. (Incidentally, the easiest way to hide your home wireless network from wardrivers is to change default password settings and disable SSID broadcast, which stops your system from responding to broadcast probes).