Wireless Fidelity, or Wi-Fi, allows users to plug a single high-speed Internet connection like a cable modem into a $175 wireless base station and share it with scores of people in a building, park, or small neighborhood. Anyone can snap a $50 antenna into a laptop and tap into many of these unsecured mini-networks for free, without permission. Others charge $20 to $75 a month. Regular users are expected to rise from 540,000 in 2001 to 5.4 million next year.
Luxury hotels like Sheraton, Hilton, and Marriott are offering Wi-Fi so business travelers can enjoy high-speed wireless Internet access in their rooms, in the lobby, or by the pool. Some 5,800 U.S. hotels are expected to offer Wi-Fi service by yearend 2004, up from 600 today.
Wi-Fi will be installed in limited areas of nearly 150 airports worldwide by the end of this year. That number should approach 300 by yearend 2004. And at least 25 of those will offer Wi-Fi service in virtually every concourse, gate, and lounge.
RESTAURANTS AND COFFEE SHOPS
In cities like Seattle and San Francisco, coffee shops offer Wi-Fi so customers can surf the Net as they sip lattes. Restaurants are expected to build 12,000 nets by yearend 2004, up from about 500 today. The payoff: Customers stay longer and spend more.
Business users in North America currently account for nearly 90% of all Wi-Fi users worldwide. Some two-thirds of the world's 1,000 biggest companies are expected to use Wi-Fi networks by yearend 2004, up from 30% today.
Gap has equipped its stores nationwide with Wi-Fi so workers can check inventory or verify prices from the showroom floor. By 2004, the nation's largest malls are expected to install nearly 2,000 networks, so customers can check e-mail or Web sites while they shop.