Turning Wi-Fi Into a Must-Have

As new applications and devices proliferate, wireless broadband will become a necessity for businesses and ordinary folks alike

Not so long ago, nurses at the surgical unit of Rhode Island Hospital ran marathons on their daily shifts. If one of them needed help to administer a treatment, he or she would have to leave a patient's bedside and trek through the corridors to look for a colleague who could lend a hand.

Three months ago the hospital, which is part of medical group Lifespan, provided surgical-unit nurses with special wireless phones from a Cupertino (Calif.) startup called Vocera. The devices allow them to call fellow staffers via an in-building Wi-Fi network, covering more than 1 million square feet. Now a nurse can simply punch in another nurse's phone number from the patient's bedside, and help is on its way. As a result, their feet -– and nerves -- get less of a workout.

While Wi-Fi, a wireless broadband technology that emerged in the past several years, has made a world of difference for Lifespan nurses, by the end of 2005 Rhode Island Hospital's basic system will seem as advanced as an eight-track stereo.


  In March, Lifespan will begin using its Wi-Fi network for transmitting information such as glucose levels to doctors in real time, just as the patient's gurney is wheeled through the halls. The hospital will likewise track the location of patients and medical devices, says Dave Hemendinger, LifeSpan's chief technology officer. It'll be a more efficient, cheaper, and accurate way to monitor medical information.

No doubt about it, this will be the year Wi-Fi goes from a novelty to a standard feature in many types of devices. It's not a stretch to say this hot wireless technology will become a must-have for service companies, from big restaurants to garbage collectors.

There are plenty of reasons why. Thanks to improvements in technology, Wi-Fi is faster and finally reasonably secure from hackers. It's also more affordable: Prices on Wi-Fi chips for laptops have fallen 50% in the past two years, estimates Craig Mathias, founder of Ashland (Mass.) wireless consultancy Farpoint Group.


  What's more, the biggest bugaboo of Wi-Fi devices -- excessive power consumption –- should be resolved this year, according to industry insiders. As a result, public Wi-Fi hotspots, already exceeding 100,000 in the U.S., will continue to multiply rapidly. And so will new business and consumer applications and devices, ranging from Wi-Fi cell phones to medical equipment.

Consumer-electronics makers are putting Wi-Fi into cameras, portable music players, and TVs. As the number of such devices reaches critical mass, consumers and businesspeople will begin using new applications, such as moving music files from portable MP3 players to TVs or creating interactive photo slide shows.

Sure, the tech-savvy can do many of those things today. But 2005 will be the year ordinary folks get the tools to do it. The world's largest chipmaker, Intel (INTC ) is working with partners on easier-to-use Wi-Fi and is planning a huge marketing blitz around Wi-Fi-enabled digital-home gadgets later this year.


  By mid-2005 all major cell-phone makers are expected to roll out Wi-Fi-enabled devices. Samsung, for one, plans to release several models, says Peter Skarzynski, senior vice-president of Samsung Telecommunications America in Richardson, Tex. Responding to customer demand, wireless service providers like Sprint PCS (FON ) and Cingular (SBC , BLS ) are already testing prototypes from multiple suppliers.

Some telecoms are likely to test Wi-Fi products from nontraditional cell-phone makers. While networking giant Cisco Systems (CSCO ) is mum on future product announcements, it already makes Wi-Fi phones. Essentially, they're high-tech cordless phones for homes and offices that use the Internet to make connections.

The next step is to attach Wi-Fi technology to a phone that can work on cellular networks. "We have all the pieces [of the technology] already," says Ann Sun, a senior manager for wireless at Cisco.

Clearly, Wi-Fi's wild ride is just beginning. "Wi-Fi enables lots of people to produce crazy applications," says Louis Mamakos, chief technology officer at service provider Vonage, which plans to offer phones based on the technology this quarter. Having graduated from buzzword status, In 2005 look for Wi-Fi to become part of everyday life.

Kharif is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in Portland, Ore.

Edited by Jim Kerstetter

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