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Special to msnbc.com
updated 12/3/2003 4:40:33 PM ET 2003-12-03T21:40:33

If Intel gives it away, will the WiFi users finally come? The chip giant may get some clues Thursday, with its daylong giveaway of WiFi access. The idea for Intel’s “One Unwired Day” is to give users a taste of what life could be like if the WiFi technology actually takes hold.

Some 5,500 hotspots are participating, with the chance to download a sampling of music, news and games all day for folks with WiFi cards bristling from their notebooks.

WiFi, short for wireless fidelity, was derided just a couple years ago as just one more high-tech flash-in-the-pan. It was loved first by hackers who “war drove” around streets with hotspot “sniffers,” Net-surfing from their cars by tapping into wireless networks in homes and businesses. That was then.

THE CENTRINO PUSH

Now, Intel loves WiFi. This summer Dell, Sony, Hewlett-Packard and IBM all rolled out new Centrino-embedded laptops with WiFi transceivers. Intel will spend $300 million this year pushing its new Centrino chip, which advances the technology, and it is sinking $150 million into WiFi business ventures. Cisco and Microsoft are among other WiFi-enthralled heavyweights.

“Clearly, it is the exciting, new, sexy technology for the mobility platform,” says Intel spokesman Dan Francisco. Yet, he says, this early stage is so frustrating: “You go to the San Francisco airport and get on the Internet using T-Mobile, but then at the Denver airport you need AT&T Wireless.”

Intel researchers say Asian road-warriors, those hardcore hip, mobile business travelers, are likely to be first to jump into WiFi with both feet. Americans are slightly ahead of the cell-culture-crazy Europeans with this technology, taking WiFi-enabled notebooks to Starbucks, McDonalds, Kinkos, hotels, restaurants, airports and cafes to tap into the Internet.

While meter attendants in London’s Soho area may soon use WiFi to hook into the office database, U.S. cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore, Portland, Ore., and Athens, Ga., are figuring out how to use WiFi, whether in city hall or the town square. Dartmouth University, an early adapter, is one big WiFi network.

The biggest growth in the United States, however, is in small home networks. People carry laptops around the house, pulling up the TV Guide online in the family room, surfing for recipes in the kitchen and answering homework questions around the dinner table.

A WIFI TV?

“There are approximately 20,000 commercial hotspots in this country,” says Jack Gold, vice president of MetaGroup analysts, “but you could probably find 10 times that in home networks in Seattle alone.” Sony Corp. and Philips Electronics reportedly plan to build WiFi-enabled stereos and TVs, with streaming video and access to MP3 music files. WiFi connections are so easy and fast that workers reportedly stay online an average of 105 additional minutes a day, boosting hopes for increased productivity.

WiFi is a trademarked name for equipment that meets a certified wireless radio networking standard. WiFi, whose proper name is 802.11, is the most popular and mature of the large cast of wireless radio standards. Since these number designations aren’t very sexy, WiFi and its relatives have nicknames like UWB (ultra wide band), Bluetooth, WiMax and ZigBee.

All operate on free, unlicensed radio frequency bands originally set aside for industrial, scientific and medical uses. They are distinguished by differences in speed, range and power consumption. These differences, some say, could mean that the technologies are really more complementary than competitive. Down the road, sophisticated wireless devices will probably combine two or more of these technologies in addition to, say, cellular technology.

IS WIFI ‘IT?’

Is WiFi the advance that finally will embed the Internet and private networks into our every action and transaction, through phones, laptops and PDAs, so that computing becomes a seamless, ubiquitous and nearly invisible part of life? Something we access all day long, at home, work and in public? The answer is: Maybe.

First, there are some hurdles to clear. Obstacles include security (WiFi networks virtually invite eavesdroppers), the lack of availability (you want more than two cafes in town where you can use your wireless card.), integration (you say this PDA uses Blackberry for some operations, Bluetooth for others and 802.11x for other stuff? too much information, thanks), roaming (let me roam seamlessly among wireless companies and give me one, simple bill, please), authentication (how does the network know you are who you say you are?) and signal interference.

With a little time and a continued rise in investment and demand, all these hurdles will be cleared, predicts Daniel Aghion, executive director of the for-profit, Boston-based Wireless Internet Institute. “The maturity today of this whole market and service is comparable to what the Internet was in ’94.”

The burning question, in the United States, at any rate, is the business model.

How do you make money with WiFi? Hotspots are cool, undeniably. But the few folks with WiFi-enabled gear aren’t willing to pay enough to support them.

There aren’t yet enough hotspots to seduce a critical mass of users who will. And there won’t be until there is money to be made.

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