Image: Wireless Internet In Downtown Manhattan
Sandeep Hingorani, left, looks at the screen of Jordan Silbert while they access the Internet wirelessly earlier this year in downtown New York City. Experts believe WiFi nodes will soon become as widespread as cellular telephone coverage.
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Special to msnbc.com

It’s 2006, after dark on a December day. You pause before pulling your car out of the company parking lot, flip open your PDA and tell it to pull up your home’s profile.

You've been meaning to reset the heat. You say: “Family room floor: 72 degrees by 4:30 p.m.; master bedroom: 70 degrees by 10 p.m.” Then, you do a virtual-check on dinner. Yes! The chops you marinated and chilled this morning soon will be baking at 350 degrees. Your home server already turned on the porch light at 5 p.m. and reminded your spouse to stop at the cleaners and cut off the cartoons at 5:15, switching the TV to the school’s Internet channel so that your kids should be — hopefully — doing their homework by now.

Before cranking the ignition, you allow yourself one more peek at your work group’s Intranet site. Sigh. Just as you suspected. Two of your colleagues filed their reports this evening, but one still is lagging. You fast-forward through video-mail and the personalized video news and traffic alerts that you downloaded throughout the day. Tucking the device into its cradle, you turn on the car and tell it to find the least-congested freeway entrance. As you head for home, you give the PDA-phone instructions: Search for concert tickets for New Year’s Eve. As it does, you return calls, without once taking your hands off the wheel.

Sound futuristic? With WiFi, the future could be closer than you think. These days, a lot of the smart money is betting on the potential of the technology.

WiFi, short for “wireless fidelity,” refers to an over-the-air connection with a wireless client and a base station or between two wireless clients. Its most common application to date has been high-speed Internet access for laptops and handheld devices.

WiFi is the popular name for equipment that meets a certified wireless radio networking standard (the proper name is 802.11). It is the most popular and mature of several unlicensed wireless radio standards (including ultra wide band, or UWB, Bluetooth, WiMax and ZigBee).

“It wasn’t too long ago that people thought WiFi was just a passing fad,” says Alan Scrime, chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Policy and Rules Division.

WiFi’s short range — 100 feet or more with no obstructions — has been one of its biggest limitations. But WiFi’s appeal is this: It is flexible, cheap (it uses an unlicensed part of the radio spectrum originally reserved for industrial, scientific and medical uses) and very fast. Recently, technology giants Intel, Cisco, Microsoft, AT&T and IBM began sinking a lot of money into WiFi, betting on it as the technology most likely, in the near-term, to carry the load for upcoming generations of mobile-consumer technology. Their researchers are trying to improve the range and stability of the WiFi standard while also learning how to meld WiFi seamlessly to the other wireless technologies, including cellular.

Cometa Networks, a partnership of IBM, AT&T, Intel Capital and investment companies Apax Partners and 3i, intends to sell wholesale WiFi service to commercial hotspots in cafes, airports, hotels and workplaces in the form of packages of bundled connections, including carriers and service providers like AT&T Wireless, Qwest, ComCast, Verizon, T-Mobile, AOL and Earthlink. Cometa, not yet a year old, is trying, in essence, to be the long-distance carrier for all the local hotspots.

Cometa’s president, Gary Weiss, wants to set up 20,000 commercial WiFi hotspots in 50 metro areas by 2005. The hope is to eventually blanket the country, making WiFi hotspots as ubiquitous as cellular towers are now. There will be “some level of seamlessness, not perfect, in the late 2004-2005 time frame,” he predicts.

Weiss is not out on a huge limb: Already, Verizon is testing 150 WiFi telephone booths in Manhattan and Brooklyn, transforming them into base stations that would allow anyone within about 600 yards to connect.

Just don’t expect a smooth WiFi experience immediately. “The goal right now is to treat the unlicensed area as an incubator. It’s an area like the old wild, wild West; a bit of a free-for-all,” the FCC’s Scrime says. “But that’s the breeding ground for new things to go in and to be built to more commercially licensed applications.”

By 2006-2007, Weiss predicts, users will get fast, seamless connections, indoors and out.

The holy grail in this world of mobile communications and entertainment is “smart” devices that seamlessly surf the invisible spectrum, choosing from among WiFi, cellular and the other unlicensed standards to latch onto the fastest, most economical carrier for your needs, much as cellular systems do today.

When that happens, communications providers and manufacturers will come at us with a zillion choices of service packages melding various combinations of WiFi, DSL, cable, and cell.

“Leave your high-speed Internet at home while you take it with you!” their advertisements will shout. It’ll be enough to make you long for the old days - back in 2003, when all you had to unravel was the fine print on cellular phone service contracts.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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