America is getting "unplugged" faster than an MTV musician as the revolution in wireless communication picks up speed.
What started a century ago with Marconi's radio and became the now ubiquitous cellphone is now taking shape around a two-way radio technology called wi-fi (short for "wireless fidelity"). It promises to unplug more communications devices by making the Internet available just about everywhere and letting people talk to each other more easily than ever before.
The new wireless could transform not only the way we communicate but also how we pay for it. Some analysts think today's cellphone model - a private network of towers that charges for access - is looking a little dated in the face of "infrastructure-free" networks where devices would talk directly among themselves. Not everyone believes wi-fi will go that direction, and the technology faces big obstacles. But if it does reach critical mass, it could storm the cellphone industry with the same momentum that carried cheap IBM clones past Apple personal computers two decades ago.
Consumers will benefit no matter what. Competition will force down the price of wireless Internet access.
"The market will push us toward a wireless future," says David Reed, an adjunct professor at MIT's Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass., who is studying the future of wireless communications. And its arrival looks much more certain than that of the paperless society, which never materialized, he adds. "People love paper, but I can't find a single person who says that about wires."
Signs of the new wireless technologies abound. Consumers are setting up wireless local area networks (WLANs) in their homes. These allow multiple computers to hook up to one fast Internet connection or laptop users to connect from the comfort of the sofa or the back patio - anywhere in their house or yard. Some 20 percent of homes with such fast Internet connections (known as broadband) now have WLANs too.
Away from home, wi-fi access points, so-called hotspots that permit wireless connections to the Internet, are popping up everywhere: in bookstores, coffee shops, truck stops, marinas, and airports. Even a bench in a shopping mall or a public park may be a place to connect to e-mail or the Web. Limousines are offering wi-fi service for customers on the go, and within the next year, major airlines are expected to announce the availability of wi-fi connections during flights. Cerritos, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb, plans to become one big wi-fi hotspot by placing transmitters all over the town of 51,000 residents.