Children of the wireless revolution
Imagine watching a movie from your home collection while waiting in an airport a thousand miles away. Or video-commuting to a grandchild's party from an off-shore yacht. Or having a technician retune your engine remotely as you wait at a roadtrip lunch stop.
A technical revolution is under way in isolated "hot spots," which offer wireless Internet access with connection speeds that may soon make possible all of the above - plus e-mail anywhere.
Yet an anticipated battle between delivery methods - big telecom companies versus smaller service providers - is likely to shape the telecommunications landscape for years to come.
Last year, industry giants introduced the third generation (3G) of wireless phones. Now, mobile data-transmission speeds twice that of a home computer modem are transforming the cellphone into a multipurpose communications tool, with features such as digital photography and wireless gaming.
Mark McHale, a communications director for Sprint, says 3G-users will soon be able "to listen to Internet radio, watch television, and even play a movie."
In the other corner is Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity. Initially developed to create small wireless hot spots within a home or office, standard Wi-Fi antennae send a signal only about 30 feet.
But Jim Selby, an Aspen, Colo., ski bum turned self-proclaimed "digital freedom fighter," incorporated innovations that extended that range to about 30 miles - creating a 120-square-mile infrastructure around Aspen, offering wireless connection speeds that rival those of large networks. When users fire up a Wi-Fi-ready laptop and discover Mr. Selby's hot spot, they are offered a daily, weekly, or monthly connection for a fee. After entering their credit card number, they are online.