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Want to find out what’s new in wireless? Look no further than your corner espresso joint. Most mornings in the Starbucks in my neighborhood, you can see a sprinkling of people huddled over their laptops, checking their e-mails and surfing the Web. What’s amazing is that their computers aren’t visibly attached to anything � no power cords or network cables. They’re using the oddly named “Wi-Fi,” or wireless fidelity networking. It’s one of the few recent computer innovations that are genuinely useful for real people � what a concept. With a laptop or a suitable personal digital assistant (PDA), you can connect to the home office or check your calendar, tomorrow’s weather, or your restaurant reservation at Lut�ce. All without wires � and at high speed. This kind of connectivity is not the same as what you get through a BlackBerry or via a Web-enabled cellular phone. Those services use our current cellular networks, and are pretty slow � and don’t have enough bandwidth for you to play the online version of The Sims when you’ve had enough of e-mail. (Others keep trying to come up with other wireless setups, but they haven’t caught on just yet.) Wi-Fi connections can be just about as fast as your office network. But if your IT staff hasn’t yet equipped you for the joys of wireless Internet connectivity, here’s what you need to get going. It’s pretty easy and not too expensive; while there are certain risks, unproductive waits in the airport lounge could be a thing of the past. What It Is First popularized by Apple Computer Inc. a few years ago as AirPort, Wi-Fi, or 802.11b, operates on the same frequency as cordless � not cellular � phones. An Internet connection is hooked up to an antenna, and, with a receiver with an antenna in your computer, you can easily get online without hooking up a network cord. Range is typically 300 feet from the receiver. The wireless revolution started, like many revolutions, in the home. Geeks found that they could take their laptops outside and still download that rare Nirvana bootleg. Once the hardware was made widely available, others got into the act. Hip coffee bars and trendy hotels put access points in their lobbies. Soon, corporate IT managers joined the fun, putting nodes up in lobbies and conference rooms. But your corporate IT staff is probably leery of widespread use. A report of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology likens a wireless access point to having “an Ethernet [network] port in the parking lot.” Eavesdroppers, with a fair amount of skill, can tap into networks and see what you’ve got. So Wi-Fi supporters have come up with password protection and other measures to safeguard their networks. Going Commercial That said, Wi-Fi nodes continue to proliferate. Easy to set up, they are also a good selling point for airport lounges and coffee shops. Until recently, Wi-Fi access was mainly the province of techies and ad hoc groups. In New York, for example, a group called NYC Wireless has been busy establishing nodes in city parks, such as the recently renovated Bryant Park on 42nd Street, behind the main public library. Get a sandwich from a deli, crack open the laptop al fresco, and send that e-mail to your staff. Recognizing a genuine phenomenon, corporate players have gotten the Wi-Fi religion. Starbucks, which appears, to paraphrase President Bush, “to leave no street corner behind,” has partnered with the telecom company formerly known as Voicestream, now the Euro-sounding T-Mobile USA, Inc. Most of its coffee bars in big cities are now T-Mobile “hot spots.” Naturally, connectivity isn’t free, and isn’t particularly cheap. But if you and your staff are regularly on the road (and have a weakness for expensive caffeinated drinks), then a corporate plan might be a worthwhile investment. Sky Dayton, founder of the second-largest Internet service provider, Earthlink, Inc., is the guy behind T-Mobile’s main competitor, Boingo. Unlike T-Mobile, Boingo supplies software that it claims makes connecting easier than other providers � and offers support. Speaking of support, right now Boingo only supports various later permutations of Windows (such as 98 and XP) and Pocket PCs. Macs will come later, a service rep promises. In early December, another big consortium threw its weight behind Wi-Fi. AT&T Corp., IBM Corporation, and Intel Corporation announced the formation of a new company, Cometa Networks, to offer wireless services. They’ve set an ambitious goal for themselves: No potential user will be more than a five-minute walk (in cities) or drive (in suburban areas) from a high-speed hot spot. What You Need To commune wirelessly with the Net, you need a laptop of any stripe (or Pocket PC), with a wireless card that slips into the PC slot, and a subscription to any of the services above. If you’ve got a wireless network at the office, you’ll probably want to ask your IT staff about security precautions. At the very least, entry to the wireless network should be password-protected. Ideally, to access mail and confidential files, you should have to go through an additional step, virtual private network tunneling. It may slow you down, but think of the alternatives. In a public place, just be careful. Just as you don’t normally allow people to hover when you’re drafting a confidential document, don’t allow fellow air travelers to stare at your screen. Make sure any file-sharing services are disabled on your laptop, and have your computer staff install a software firewall on the machine. These precautions should keep all but the most proficient hackers away from your data. And by the way, make sure you don’t spill that double-shot caff� latte on your keyboard.

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