I found a hotspot!

5 Nov 2002

BERLIN: You’d be amazed how far an Irish journalist has to go to actually taste real broadband – wireless broadband at that – in action. Strolling through the lobby of the plush Intercontinental Hotel in central Berlin, dark-suited types could be seen contentedly clicking away at their laptops, occasionally looking bemused, but grinning suspiciously.

To the uninitiated, these suspicious characters could be fresh from the set of the new Matrix film. Instead, this is home to the Global DSL and Broadband Forum, where the varied degrees of successful (and in Ireland’s case, so far unsuccessful) rollouts of broadband occupy the hearts and minds of members of various governments, telecoms companies and telecoms equipment manufacturers.

To those few of us in the know, these manically grinning laptop users were a motley crew of Cisco and T-mobile executives, including a smattering of journalists, who were availing of the use of a specially-created wireless hotspot utilising three access points (special wireless antennas), granting high-speed wireless local area networking and access to the internet at a minimum speed of 2Mbps.

Wireless local area networking (otherwise known as Wi-Fi) allows individuals to use devices such as laptops and personal digital assistants to enjoy speeds of up to 11Mbps within a 500-foot radius, and whatever the outside connection to the rest of the connected world allows. The novelty for this journalist was that it was the first time using Wi-Fi after months of writing lengthy tomes on the predicted rise of this technology. I was beginning to feel guilty. It was also, not surprisingly in Ireland’s case, this journalist’s experience of being able to enjoy web access at a speed of at least 2Mbps.

The effect was simply euphoric. Equipped with a Cisco Aironet 350 wireless LAN adapter card and the appropriate driver software, with the help of Cisco internetworking consultant Sven Schmidtke, I was live and connected within 10 minutes. First thing to greet me was the T-mobile portal page, and then I was off, emailing and instant messaging anybody who cared.

Wireless local area networking under the 802.11b standard, or Wi-Fi to the rest of us, is predicted to bring about a new golden age in computer networking and e-business. The cards, often costing less than €150 and the network access points, often costing as little as €500, mean that small and medium-sized and SOHO (small office home office) firms can quickly and affordably establish a local area network (LAN).

I was able to walk around the lobby at leisure and access websites of choice without hassle and the connection appeared reassuringly firm.

It was no surprise then that hotspots have sprouted up all over the US, taking in some 18 million homes and offices, and the same trend has Europe in its clutches. Hotels, airports, coffee shops such as Starbucks and business districts are facilitating this trend and it is predicted that within five years some 91 million devices will be capable of connecting to wireless networks. Research by DIT (Dublin Institute of Technology) and Enigma has claimed that some 378 wireless hotspots are currently active in Dublin today, with usage expected to soar over the coming year.

The big drawback to Wi-Fi networking is security and Cisco’s Sven Schmidtke, who established Starbucks’ first European hotspot in a coffee shop in Berlin, expressed reservations about the still-to-be-resolved security issues surrounding Wi-Fi. It is understood that many companies that install the current 802.11b family of Wi-Fi networks do so with their security settings turned off, a factor that has given rise to a new trend of hacking. This trend, known as war driving or net stumbling, occurs when hackers equipped with wireless local area network cards drive around cities searching for open hotspots with which they can get free broadband access and even break into private networks. A further trend of ‘war chalking’ occurs when net stumblers use graffiti on walls and footpaths to show other stumblers where available hotspots exist.

The advent of a new standard this month known as 802.11x, driven by Microsoft, should be expected to put many of these risks to rest.

Interestingly, T-mobile’s involvement in establishing this demonstration of a wireless hotspot with Cisco was no small coincidence. It is believed that mobile phone carriers see Wi-Fi as the perfect way to augment their forthcoming 3G (third generation) networks for data hungry applications.

For now, as far as this journalist is concerned, an explosion in Wi-Fi networks in this country is a very welcome development indeed.

By John Kennedy