The Internet unplugged

Circa 1994, an easy way to win the admiration of one’s peers was to brag about being connected to the Internet. Before the advent of their millionaire years, Internet geeks and nerds would retreat into their homes for days at a time “surfing” the “Web” and “e-mailing” as their 2,400-baud modems strained to pick up data slogging along the telephone company’s 100-year-old copper wires. Meanwhile, universities and businesses invested millions in stretching T-1 cable nationwide with an eye toward one day realizing the full promise of an information superhighway.

Fast-forward to 2003: The dot-com wet dreams have petered out, the initial wiring frenzy has subsided — and the shape of our digital future remains unclear. According to a February 2002 Federal Communications Commission report to Congress, at least one provider was offering some form of broadband (or high-speed) Internet service in 78 percent of all U.S. ZIP codes. Yet despite a 36 percent increase in broadband subscribers during 2001, supply still seems to be dramatically outstripping demand: The report found a mere 7 percent of the population taking advantage of that now-widely-available access.

Meanwhile, Internet chic has also shifted. These days, those 20-year-olds who couldn’t tear themselves away from their creaky Internet connections back in 1994 are lingering in coffee houses, hotel lobbies and restaurants — still using the Internet (of course), only now without wires.

Wireless Internet enables individual computers to connect to the Internet via radio frequencies. This requires both a receiver (a wireless card for each computer, available for as little as $40) and a broadcaster (base stations, as they’re called, start at about $100). Plug a cable modem or DSL line into a base station (going totally wireless is also possible, though somewhat more complicated), and any wireless-equipped computer within several hundred feet can enjoy high-speed Internet access. (Broadband, of course, is still relatively expensive — roughly twice the cost of standard dial-up Internet service.)

This simple idea, however, missed out on most of the dot-com boom (due in part to an FCC that’s notoriously reluctant to release bandwidth) and has really started gathering steam only within the last two years. At this point, wireless is about where the Internet was back in ’94: underground; a little tricky to set up; and, in a growing number of cases, free to end users.

The catch, of course, is that somebody still has to pay for that “free” access. And not everyone who goes wireless is ready to share their network with strangers. Restricting access to an in-house wireless network is as simple as requiring a password, or requiring all computers in the system to be registered.

Not everyone does that, however, and an informal network, free to those in the know, has been gradually evolving nationwide. Inspired by hoboes’ use of chalk marks to identify friendly homes during the Great Depression, enterprising techies are now turning to “warchalking” to share the whereabouts of “hot spots” (i.e., places where it’s possible to tap into wireless service with a card-equipped laptop).

Meanwhile, at the national level, both Starbucks and Schlotzky’s Deli are in the midst of rolling out wireless Internet in all of their stores. Here in Asheville, hot spots are still few and far between, but given the low cost of setting up wireless (once the base station is paid for, a business need only pay the monthly bill for Internet service — which they’re probably already doing anyway for their own use), widespread “free” wireless may be just around the corner.

“Right now, if you have a restaurant, you’re expected to provide a bathroom and telephone,” notes Don Davis, president of Skyrunner, an Asheville-based company providing wireless service locally since 1997. “In the future, you’ll be expected to provide high-speed wireless Internet as well.”

Russell Thomas, president of the Asheville-based Natural Communications, has already set up one hot spot downtown, on Battery Park Avenue. His company’s Beampost — a roughly 3-foot-high, 6-inch-wide beige metal post that might be mistaken for a place to tie up dogs if it weren’t for the blinking lights — provides three different kinds of wireless service: 802.11b (currently the most popular), bluetooth (a higher-speed but closer-range technology), and infrared (used by Handsprings and Palm Pilots). Among the beneficiaries are tech-savvy customers at the Old Europe Coffee House, who can now sip java while surfing the ‘Net free of charge with their laptops.

Thomas is hatching plans to install more Beamposts around Asheville, thereby multiplying the number of downtown hot spots. That means more opportunities for free wireless Internet. Eventually, Thomas may start charging for the service (though it would probably still be far cheaper than the current cost of a high-speed Internet connection; Starbuck’s service, provided through t-Mobile, goes for $2.95 an hour, or a mere $50 a year — not counting the coffee, of course).

For the time being, however, Thomas says he’s doing this as a contribution to the downtown scene. “I love Asheville; I’m invested in Asheville. When I first arrived here [in 1986], there were tumbleweeds blowing down the street. Now it’s viable.”

Meanwhile, some local businesses have already gone wireless. John Maltry, co-owner of the Log Cabin Motor Court just north of Asheville, said he installed wireless Internet several months ago after a long-term tenant requested service. Simply by installing a single base station, Maltry now has wireless access over most of his 3 acre property; as a result, the Log Cabin is attracting business clients interested in using the Internet while on the road. Maltry, who doesn’t charge for the service, said he also offers wireless cards to travelers who don’t have one.

“I’m impressed with the way it works,” he said. “This is a great way to retrofit [computer] systems.” At the same time, notes Maltry, wireless enables his business to woo a different demographic. “We’re trying to market to a different audience. Here, you can have a wood-burning fireplace, a pet sitting next to you, and be surfing the ‘Net.”

Beanstreets owner Richard Puia says he’s also looking into getting wireless in his popular downtown coffee spot.

“I think it’s a growing trend, and we’ll probably get into it in the near future,” he reports.

And, south of downtown, Biltmore Coffee Traders (in Biltmore Crossing) is another local place where patrons can surf and sip. Owner Bridgett Putt said wireless Internet has been available at her business for three months, though she hasn’t advertised it. Putt said she will continue to offer the service for free, and may make wireless cards available to customers with laptops for a small fee.

“I think it’s a service I should offer for free,” she said. “A lot of drug-company representatives and medical personnel are starting to come in to do their business here. I’d like to have it [wireless Internet] available for them.”

Because wireless is so quick to set up, it’s also an easy way to provide Internet access in remote areas, notes Wally Bowen, executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network. MAIN recently received a $360,000 grant from the North Carolina Rural Internet Access Authority to provide wireless service to Madison, Mitchell and Yancey counties using mini-satellite dishes.

“It’s a real breakthrough technology, because it presents the opportunity for grassroots groups like MAIN to create an alternative telecommunications infrastructure,” says Bowen. “We’re bypassing the telecommunications conglomerates that own the lines and wires that have controlled our lives so long. Because of the dot-com bubble bursting [in 2000], they haven’t been able to dominate wireless like they might have otherwise.”

Cities are also getting in on the act. Long Beach, Calif., is one of a number of urban areas offering wireless Internet as part of downtown development efforts.

Now that some dot-com companies are recovering, however, they too are trying to get into the wireless game. But because the price for wireless has dropped so low and there are no rules against using a wireless system to provide Internet access (as long as a business doesn’t try to resell the service), it will be hard for the big guys to come up with a compelling reason for consumers to adopt their service, says Davis of Skyrunner.

Another potential downside with wireless is privacy concerns. It’s easier for someone to intercept broadcast data than it is to tap into a hard-wired Internet connection. This looms large for enterprises such as banks and hospitals that use private (as opposed to Internet-based) networks to share sensitive information. But given the Internet’s inherent security concerns, this should not be a particular issue for most users, Davis maintains, as long as they take the usual precautions to protect confidential information.

In any case, Bowen believes that Internet access will soon be as readily available as a cell-phone signal is today.

“The same kind of freedom that we’ve experienced with our telephones with the advent of cell phones we’re going to have with the Internet,” predicts Bowen, adding, “I certainly hope it doesn’t become as pointless as cell-phone usage.”

And if his vision proves true and the number of hot spots multiplies, downtown Asheville might become one giant, free Internet cafe, with people in libraries, coffee houses, bookstores, restaurants and park benches happily tapping away on laptops — freed from the tether of their phone or cable lines, and liberated from those $50-a-month Internet bills.

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