In the early 2000s, the momentum gained by IEEE 802.11b in the wake of the surge in home networking so as to allow the sharing of broadband Internet connections saw the technology migrate from the home to outdoors. The WLAN configuration was the same – an Access Point (AP) transceiver connected to a wired network from a fixed location using standard Ethernet cabling. However, by mounting the AP on a tall mast – anything from 50ft to 120ft – and using special outdoor 802.11b LAN bridges and routers, it was possible to extend the WLAN from building to building, and thereby greatly increase its range.

The United States took the lead in the creation of these public area WLANs – known as Wi-Fi hot spots – and by 2001 it was estimated that there were already more than 5,000 in the US, an estimated 80% of the world total. Universities were early adopters, closely followed by companies such as Starbucks and a number of hotel chains. By the following year, predictions that the technology would break into the mainstream in 2002 looked spot on, with Wi-Fi hot spots popping up all over, in coffee shops, airports, hotels and office buildings.

In the UK the take-up of Wi-Fi was hampered by existing legislation. Whilst Wi-Fi was booming in the USA, UK companies were prevented from using the technology as a way of selling Internet connectivity, since the 802.11b 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands – as part of the ISM (Instrumentation, Scientific and Medical) spectrum band – could only be used under licence for non-commercial purposes. This restriction was finally removed in the summer of 2002, signalling the start of widespread deployment of Wi-Fi hot spots in the UK. Commercial operators were still required to obtain a Telecommunications Act licence, and were responsible for taking security and possible interference issues into account.

National telco BT had already announced plans to have 400 Wi-Fi hot spots in place by June 2003, with a long-term target of 4,000 by 2005. Implementation proceeded rapidly following the lifting of legal restrictions and the company had some 20 hot spots up and running by the time of the launch of its commercial Wi-Fi service, BT Openzone, in August 2002. BT was not alone. European ISP Megabeam – who already operated Wi-Fi hot spots at 20 locations throughout Europe, including Rome airport and Milan airport – were quick to announce a deal to install Wi-Fi hot spots at nine London railway terminals and six regional stations. A few weeks later US coffee shop chain Starbucks – already committed to doubling its around 650 US Starbucks cafes with Wi-Fi access in the US – announced plans for 6-month Wi-Fi hot spot trials at two of its London stores.

In the autumn of 2002 Birmingham International Airport (BIA) announced that it had become the UK’s first airport to set up a commercial Wi-Fi Internet access point. Travellers paid for the service by purchasing 30 minutes, an hour, a day, a week, or a month’s worth of connection time via a secure encrypted payment page when that selected an Internet browser from their Wi-Fi enabled laptop or notebook.

Non-commercial Wi-Fi hot spots also exist. In the main these are set up by local communities of Wi-Fi enthusiasts, with the express purpose of allowing neighbours to share broadband Internet connections. It’s a practice that annoys many DSL and cable modem broadband service providers – violating rules against the redistribution of bandwidth – but one that they can do little to prevent. In the US some communities have even set up Wi-Fi clouds, or clusters of access points, to blanket several square blocks with wireless Internet coverage.

Wi-Fi clearly has the potential to play a part in solving the problem of broadband access in rural areas, where demand is insufficient to justify the upgrading of a local exchange to deliver ADSL or where communities are simply beyond the reach of ADSL technology. The UK’s Broadband Wireless Association (BWA) believes that local libraries or post offices should be encouraged to subscribe to a broadband connection – either via ADSL or a leased line – and then install a Wi-Fi Access Point on the outside of their building so as to serve businesses and homes within 500 to 1,000 yards.

The success of Wi-Fi presents a potential dilemma to the mobile phone industry. Many mobile phone operators have made a huge investment in 3G on the basis that it would be the technology that delivered always-on access to the Internet to mobile users. However, with bandwidth good enough for television-quality video, what’s to stop a potential mobile service provider not laden with 3G debts from electing to go the WLAN route?

This is perhaps more likely to happen in US than elsewhere. Mobile phones have a higher penetration in Europe, the technology is more advanced and much of the population has succumbed to text messaging mania. In the US, on the other hand, people are used to getting data delivered to their PC screens, and with confusion over mobile network standards and bandwidth availability, have been much slower to commit to 3G.

The line adopted by European companies developing wireless technologies and infrastructure is that 3G and WLAN are complementary. Perhaps their vision – of cell phone manufacturers beginning to incorporate Wi-Fi in new models, and developing units that seamlessly switch from conventional cellular to Wi-Fi depending on which signal provides the best data link – will prevail in the long run!

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