SCI-TECH & AGRI

The Net's 'wireless' way ahead

With the government throwing open the `Wi-fi' spectrum, India is poised to join other nations where usage of this wireless networking technology is exploding. Anand Parthasarathy examines the scenario for an untethered Internet future.

THE STUDENTS' grapevine on the Web has some useful information for those who are new to New York City. It provides a map of park benches and hotel precincts where one can just switch on a notebook PC and surf for free.

A wireless `cloud' hovering over these select locales provides the connectivity. Local experience says you can do the same thing in some spots of Singapore's Changi International Airport and in Tokyo and Seattle; in the Presidio area in the shadow of San Francisco's famous Golden Gate Bridge; in ten restaurants of a `deli' chain near Texas University..... the list grows longer by the hour, as Wireless Fidelity or Wi-Fi, also known as the networking standard 802.11b, takes the computers `n' communications world by storm.

You can do the same thing in some classy spots in India too. Initially they could be airport lounges, or five star hotel lobbies, that charge for the privilege. But soon it will be available for the rest of us — free. Because like the Internet itself, the wire-free, anytime, anywhere access to it will be substantially free of charge.

On Monday last, the Union IT Secretary R.R. Shah, said in Chennai, that Government had finally deregulated the 802.11b spectrum and wireless communication, mostly Internet based can now be carried out legally, provided some commercial agency or benefactor placed the required Net access `pipe' nearby and created the wireless cloud or `hotspot' with an approximate radius of 100 m. In a few months Government is also committed to delicensing the 802.11a spectrum which will enable such wireless Net connections to handle fast broadband traffic.

This is a technology whose time has come.Within days of the government's decision last month, this correspondent saw Wi-Fi in action in Mumbai: at the venue of the Intel Developer Forum (IDF '02), dozens of Indian delegates including many news persons were sending and receiving emails from their notebooks, without any visible umbilical to a phone outlet.

They were using a plug-in wireless card or built-in wireless feature that will soon become standard on mobile computing platforms. Indeed, companies like Intel clearly feel that `Wireless is the way to go' in the future: In the next generation `Banias' processor that the U.S. chip maker is due to unveil in 2003, wireless access capability using the 802.11 standard will be built into the silicon.

In a development in the same direction, the other PC chip maker, AMD, has announced its own Wi-Fi chipset to be called `Alchemy'. These will add a new `last mile' option that can open up Internet access in remote rural areas that are not wired with telephones — because with strong repeaters, the basic 100m hop of the Wi-Fi network can be extended to 3-5 km.

Wi-Fi is a relatively recent wireless technology dating back to 1997, when the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Association (WECA) — an organization that has now `morphed' into the `Wi-Fi Alliance' (WFA), first mooted it. Wi-Fi ran to the 802.11b standard promulgated by the Institution of Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE) and works in the 2.4 Gigahertz (GHZ) band of the telecom spectrum. It provides connectivity at speeds in the range 1-11 megabits per second (MBPS) which is much faster than the 56 KBPS we are used to, with telephone dial- up access. IEEE also codified a faster standard: 802.11a, which worked in a different spectrum, 5 GHz, and provided much faster data transfers, from 6 MBPS to 54 MBPS what we would call broadband access. The two standards are not compatible which is why many of the latest Wi-Fi LAN cards that you can buy if your notebook or PC is not already wireless enabled, claim that they are `dual band', much like the dual band mobile phones.

A third IEEE standard, 802.11g, operates identically to 8092.11a but is backward compatible with the slower 802.11b. The field however belongs to the first mover and the 802.11b has become a defacto industry standard.

However Wi-Fi is highly sensitive to the distance from the hotspot centre and data rates fall off rapidly as you hit the periphery. Some of the multimedia PCs that are scheduled to hit the Indian market by year-end have been announced with a special built-in capability for Wi-Fi thrown in free.

In all this, another claimant to wireless `standard' status should not be forgotten: Bluetooth, a trade name that belongs to the Ericsson group. This works in the same band as 802.11b that is, 2.4 GHz, but its data rates are limited to 1 GBPS and its range does not usually extend beyond 20 metres. However Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are not competing, but complementary technologies. The former provides Internet connectivity without having to physically link to a cable or telephone line, and is meant for those who need to work or access email in public spaces. The latter is a neat way of linking a variety of devices, mostly in a small space — PCs, printers, phones, keyboards.. and exchanging data between them without the clutter of wires.

In its own way, each helps to `set free' the `connected' citizens of the world from constraints as they grope towards each other. Indeed, after Local Area Network (LAN) and Wide Area Network (WAN), they have coined a new acronym for the wireless network that is emerging. It's called NAN: Neighbourhood Area Network...a name that is rapidly transforming to a homelier one, `Nanny'.

Already Nanny Net activists who do not like the idea of corporates making money out of every new technology idea, are actively working to create more and more free wireless web hotspots, by using their own paid high speed Net access service and broadcasting it to the space around their home. Is it legal? No! Say the Internet providers. But analysts predict that ultimately we can expect to connect to the Internet from wherever on earth we are standing, just as we expect to breathe the air without paying for it. Websites like freenetworks.org or netstumbler.com already document many of these resources.

And in parts of the US, individuals as well as corporates are chalking up the edges of pavements in a special colour to indicate to others that the area is a Wi-Fi hotspot. They call it `warchalking'. It is a secret or maybe not so secret code between fellow Internet fans as they venture into the unknown, uncharted, territory of a truly free and global web. It is a coded message that says: Come here and share what you have, with the world.

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