Catching the Wi-Fi Wave

It's described as a "Wi-Fi moment" -- the first time you experience high-speed Internet access of the totally untethered kind. It takes about 30 seconds to realize first that it's actually working, and second that you don't want to ever go back. Wi-Fi, short for "wireless fidelity," spread over the past four years across much of the world as a grass-roots movement of tech hobbyists. As the cost for corporate Wi-Fi equipment plummets -- building a Wi-Fi access node now costs about $2,000 -- such "hot spots" are popping up all over. Wireless-equipped laptops can connect in tens of thousands of hotels, airports, restaurants, coffee bars, schools, college campuses, and public parks, quite often for free.

Our Wi-Fi Special Report in this week's issue looks at the tech industry's effort to transform this phenomenon into a global business. New York-based Internet Editor Heather Green reported the main story with Telecommunications Editor Steve Rosenbush, also in New York, and telecom specialist Roger O. Crockett, our deputy bureau chief in Chicago. From Paris, European tech correspondent (and former Silicon Valley correspondent) Andy Reinhardt argues that Wi-Fi has a long way to go to rival cellular. Meanwhile, the most aggressive push into Wi-Fi is under way in South Korea, which already has the highest proportion of fixed-line broadband subscribers, 10.7 million households out of a population of 48 million. Seoul Bureau Chief Moon Ihlwan reports on how Wi-Fi is piggybacking on broadband. Stephen Baker, senior writer in New York and Reinhardt's predecessor on the Europe technology beat, led the team.

The U.S. tech industry hopes that Wi-Fi will give it a desperately needed shot of growth. Wi-Fi networks are still relatively insecure and won't take off among corporate users until firewall protection can be assured. And if the computer industry overhypes Wi-Fi, especially when the technology remains immature, it risks alienating customers. The biggest challenge is in Europe and Asia, where the Third Generation high-speed cellular network coming on stream already provides broader coverage than Wi-Fi hot spots. As 3G moves to North America in the next couple years, the question is whether customers will subscribe to both services. Or will competition between the wireless systems drive prices down, undermining both industries?

For consumers, Wi-Fi is already the decorator's solution to home networking: Home laptops can share files, printers, and Internet access, sure, but mainly, there are no wires to hide. And you are free to wander, no longer limited by the length of a cable but only by a signal that extends up to 300 feet.

You can count on our best coverage of the latest developments in Wi-Fi, 3G, and everything in between, both in our pages, and daily on BusinessWeek Online's technology channel ( Experience "the moment."

By Bob Dowling, Managing Editor International

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