Wireless Internet the Next Big Tech Thing. No, really.

HOT CURRY POWDER. That's the secret ingredient Matthew MacGillivray likes to add to his rice dishes - that or cumin. He leans over the sizzling pan and sniffs the aroma, then glances at his laptop computer - sitting right beside the stove.

Wireless Internet the Next Big Tech Thing. No, really.

HOT CURRY POWDER. That's the secret ingredient Matthew MacGillivray likes to add to his rice dishes - that or cumin. He leans over the sizzling pan and sniffs the aroma, then glances at his laptop computer - sitting right beside the stove. MacGillivray loves to cook, and the handiest place to find great recipes is on the Net's many food sites. Six months ago, the 26-year-old software developer installed a wireless network that lets him surf the Net or access files stored on his desktop computer from anywhere in his second-storey Toronto apartment. When the food's ready, he carries his plate, a glass of red wine and his laptop to the table, remotely retrieves some dinner music - MP3s from his PC - and then browses his favourite sites as he chows down. "I can't wait for summer," says MacGillivray. "I'm going to set up my hammock and surf while I swing."

The tech industry refers to people like MacGillivray as "early adopters," but the people it's really counting on to discover the wonders of Wireless-Fidelity is the rest of us. If you haven't yet heard of Wi-Fi, it's just a matter of time. More and more consumers - just like businesses a year or so ago - are realizing how cheap and simple it is to connect all of their computers together and share files, printers, Web cameras, music, movies and games. No more family fights over who gets to use the computer with Internet access; no more burning stuff onto CDs to transfer information from one system to another; no more drilling holes in the floor to connect to the PC in the basement. With 20 per cent of Canadian homes already operating more than one computer - not to mention handheld devices - Wi-Fi is catching on fast. But not everyone realizes the unsavoury side of the new technology: since wireless signals go through walls, an unsecured network is accessible to anyone driving down the street.

Wireless-Fidelity isn't a brand or even a technology (and no, there is no such thing as wireless-infidelity). A non-profit organization called the Wi-Fi Alliance oversees what products get the label. The current standard is technically known as 802.11b, and works by allowing computers, including handhelds, to communicate with each other via radio waves transmitted from a base station, also called a router or access point. A user connects the base station to a high-speed modem (sorry, Wi-Fi and dial-up don't mix) at home or the office and then attaches a second device to a laptop or PC. And it's fast. Data transfer speeds can reach 11 megabits per second - about 10 times as fast as an average high-speed Internet connection. The effective range is usually limited to about 100 metres. But several access points connected to each other can build a web of public wireless "hot spots" that can conceivably cover an entire city, much like cellphone coverage. In fact, that's a plan.

Wi-Fi's populist appeal has hardware developers working overtime to embed wireless technology into just about everything coming off the assembly line. Already, music lovers can send MP3 tunes to special hard-disk-equipped car stereos via a wireless connection, and Wi-Fi DVD players can channel photos and videos from a computer to a TV. And that's just the start. By the end of this year, digital cameras, MP3 players, portable displays, tablet PCs and cellphones will be capable of using the new technology - and the list is growing. "In a few years, wireless will be everywhere," says Greg Barber, Microsoft Canada's director of home and entertainment products.

Major companies are jumping on the Wi-Fi wagon and investing billions, which they hope will lift the tech and telecom industries out of their doldrums. Sales of wireless routers and network cards nearly quadrupled in the U.S. last year and worldwide figures indicate a five-fold increase in unit sales by 2006, from six million today. No doubt that's why giants Intel, AT&T and IBM formed a company called Cometa Networks Inc. in December and plan to blanket the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas with public wireless access points.

In Canada, things aren't nearly that ambitious - yet. Bell Canada has been running a pilot project offering free wireless access at 19 public places in Montreal, Toronto, Kingston and Calgary since December. Surfers waiting for a VIA train at Union Station in Toronto or in the Air Canada lounge at Montreal's Dorval airport can send mail or download some songs for their trip. Bell's trial ends this spring, and the company won't say where - or whether - the service will be available or how much it will cost. Toronto-based Rogers Cable Inc. and Calgary's Shaw Cable Inc. - the country's biggest high-speed Internet providers - are similarly non-committal. But Toshiba Canada is convinced: it recently announced plans for a nationwide pay-per-use network of hot spots in more than 1,000 locations, including coffee chains, hotels and travel terminals.

The biggest Wi-Fi users are currently business types, so Wi-Fi goes where they go. Calgary's Fairmont Palliser hotel installed a wireless network nine months ago. "Our customers love it," says general manager Roger Soane. "We have a very nice lobby and a lot of people like to come down in the morning, sit at one of the desks and do some work, maybe have a meeting there." Coffee shops are a popular destination, too. In the U.S., Starbucks Corp. has 2,200 outlets serving up Internet access to anyone willing to pay US$30 a month to read their favourite e-zine while sipping a latte. Starbucks says it's interested in expanding the service to some of Canada's 300-plus locations.

Some businesses, though, are offering Wi-Fi for free, footing the bill in exchange for an increase in traffic. At Miofrio!, a trendy organic coffee shop with three locations in Toronto, people can surf and check e-mail, but the system blocks file-sharing to prevent bandwidth hogs downloading music and movies on the coffee shop's dime. Installing the network has helped business, says operations manager Richard Chase. "We draw real-estate people, brokers, writers and high-school students," says Chase. "Our business has increased and people spend more time in here buying coffee."

Wi-Fi also has uses beyond business and pleasure. At the Markham-Stouffville hospital just north of Toronto, nurses wheel laptops through the well-lit halls and feed information into the hospital's electronic documentation system from beside a patient's bed. "Our investment improves patient care," says Scott Briggs, the hospital's IT director. In an emergency, doctors can access a patient's bedside chart - even see an X-ray or CT scan - from office or home.

Wireless is making a difference in the hinterland, too. Paul Baran moved to Kaslo, B.C., in the Kootenay Mountains in 1999 after 20 years working as a journalist in Hong Kong. Until recently, Baran, 53, had to make do with telephone Internet access because no high-speed service was available. "It used to be I'd dial up to the World Wide Wait," says Baran. Enter 24-year-old Simon Kerr, partner Sky Ziegler, 26, and their recent start-up, Mountaintop Wireless. They use a series of towers linked to Nelson, B.C., 67 km away, to offer wireless access to 25 customers, with hopes of reaching 300 by the end of the year. Baran's happy: "I'm flabbergasted by the speed."

But while customers may gush about performance, Wi-Fi has one big problem: security. Because wireless networks broadcast their signals over radio waves, anyone with a laptop or handheld can "sniff" networks using programs easily found on the Net and hitchhike on someone else's connection. Yet few users - consumers or businesses - realize they have to take special measures to defeat such use. "Not enabling some kind of encryption," says J.P. Tanguay, whose company Wireless Friendly advises businesses on security, "is akin to hooking up your computer to the Net and then leaving it on your front doorstep. A guy can sit outside of someone's house downloading porn for three weeks and it's the innocent guy's IP address that shows up."

In fact, the high-tech hobby known as "war-driving" - cruising a neighbourhood to find unprotected wireless networks - has drawn security concerns from Canada's spy agency, CSIS, and not without reason. After a half-hour tour through Toronto's business centre last month, Tanguay's handheld detected more than 120 unguarded networks.

Not that security is top of mind for Matt MacGillivray. The food enthusiast is looking forward to spring so he can eat dinner on his front porch. He's only had Wi-Fi for six months, but can't imagine life without it. "It unlocks me," he says. "It's freedom."

Maclean's March 17, 2003