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As the wireless world turns

The desire to bring the Internet into every corner of people's lives snakes its way through the Comdex trade show.

LAS VEGAS--The desire to bring the Internet into every corner of people's lives snaked its way through the Comdex trade show this week.

Gartner analyst Bob Egan says the proliferation of technologies and devices for wireless Internet access reflects the promise, as well as the problem, of mobile data services.

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One of the more ambitious plans on display here came from an unlikely source: Boeing. The airplane manufacturer used the show to demonstrate its plans to bring high-speed Internet access to the skies.

While Internet users on the ground are lucky to get much better than dial-up modem Internet speeds in most places, Boeing is promising to deliver Internet access in the megabits, along with live television, via satellite to commercial jets beginning next year.

Boeing's Connexion initiative, first detailed this spring, relies on an antenna that wraps around the surface of a jet's fuselage to allow laptop computers to receive data at 20 megabits per second and send data back at 1.5 megabits per second. Although the costs to add the equipment will no doubt be substantial, a Boeing representative said the company expects that passengers will pay no more than cell phone-type rates.

For those on land, the ideal wireless Internet device for many would be something like the WebPad Metro, a prototype Web-surfing tablet from National Semiconductor and Metricom shown at Comdex. The WebPad Metro will be able to access the Internet sans cords in any of the cities where Metricom offers service.

Comdex 2000:
Back to the future However, price remains a key issue. The unit itself is likely to cost about $1,000, without a subsidy from a service provider. In addition, people with Metricom's Ricochet modems typically pay $70 to $80 per month for service, although Metricom said service could drop to the $50 range by limiting the speed, amount of use, or number of locations in which a person can use the device.

While Metricom offers speeds of around 128 kbps in certain areas, much of the United States has far slower wireless access. For that reason, several companies are still holding off on including wireless Internet access in their portable gadgets, opting instead to make wireless Net service an add-on aimed at the road warriors who can't live without it.

Sony cited the slow speed of most networks as one of the main reasons it has not included wireless Net access on its Clie handheld, spokesman David Yang said.

Sony, like other handheld makers that don't offer built-in wireless access, is instead relying on companies such as GoAmerica to sell wireless add-ons.

Compaq Computer, for example, announced at Comdex a deal with GoAmerica to offer wireless Internet service with its iPaq handheld.

GoAmerica not only resells wireless service from various carriers, but also sends content through its servers to offer slimmed-down sites that can make the most of the comparatively slow wireless data networks.

Handspring has also thus far relied on add-ons to provide wireless Internet access. However, Handspring vice president Joe Sipher said that over time, the company will integrate wireless features into its handhelds.

"It's wireless, baby. That is the future," Sipher said.