Meet the new www: worldwide wireless

The rise of wireless hotspots is changing the way we use the internet

The rise of wireless hotspots is changing the way we use the internet

Against the background of continuing dotcom gloom, there has been one bright spot recently. Or perhaps I should say hotspot, since the technology in question is IEEE 802.11 wireless connectivity, better-known as Wi-Fi.

In an office environment, the advantages of Wi-Fi over traditional cabling are clear: fewer wires and the ability to take a portable to a meeting and retain connectivity to the corporate network.

The situation for home users is rather different. Although families with several PCs will welcome the possibility of linking them into a wireless home Lan, I suspect that the ready availability of low-cost broadband internet services may also have played its part.

As I have noted before, the key feature of broadband is not its speed - after all, few sites are able to send out data at the maximum theoretical rate - but its availability.

The fact that broadband is always on changes the way you use the internet radically. Indeed, for anyone accustomed to an always-on service, working on a laptop without instant access to Google, constantly updated news feeds or audio and video streams seems almost inconceivable.

The rise of public Wi-Fi hotspots is an interesting social phenomenon, but it is probably not significant in terms of driving Wi-Fi uptake. Yet, in a heartening display of old-style faith that there are riches to be made from new technology, numerous companies - sometimes called "hotspot operators" - are hoping to make money from Wi-Fi connectivity.

An interesting analysis of the dynamics and economics of this nascent market is provided by Boingo. This company hopes to make money as a hotspot aggregator, uniting the disparate hotspots into a seamless, wide area wireless network.

Other people have the same idea, with the difference that they want to offer Wi-Fi access for free. One of the leading sites in the UK, Consume.net, has plenty of information about this area.

These altruistic networks are unlikely to represent much of a threat to commercial providers, but this does not mean the commercial providers will have an easy time. As experience with first unmetered and then broadband access has shown, it is difficult to make money from connectivity because Darwinian dynamics dictate that providers price their essentially identical services as cheaply as possible, leaving little room for profit.

At least they are in a better position than the 3G/UMTS network operators, who paid such extraordinary sums for licences in the UK. One of the benefits of UMTS touted originally was high-speed internet connectivity on the move. Wi-Fi already provides that, with potentially far higher throughput, and for almost no cost. It is interesting that one of the UMTS pioneers, 3 UK, makes no mention of the internet other than e-mail, preferring instead to talk about content.

UMTS will probably survive, since it serves a rather different market from that of Wi-Fi. The same is true of Bluetooth, though it too will need to adapt itself to a world where wireless is ubiquitous, and computers come with Wi-Fi built in.

In the longer term, the availability of millions of overlapping Wi-Fi zones may lead to the creation of a completely decentralised peer-to-peer network that bypasses the main ISP nodes. This would render the government's draconian legislation requiring total surveillance of all internet activity at those nodes completely pointless.

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