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Stepping from the office into a wireless world

Cisco, 3Com and Lucent, among others, are banking that people will want wireless Web access everywhere: at work, at home, and even at airports and hotels.

At Widener University, laptop-toting students are getting a taste of new technology that may one day become commonplace: wireless Net access.

The private Pennsylvania college has built a wireless network in its library, and plans to offer wireless Net access throughout the school in three years. For Widener's 8,000 students, it means they can instantly log on to the Net in classrooms, and even surf the Web and do research from the school lawn.

"Students can move around in a science lab, do their experiments on the Web and not worry about network connections," said Gary Habermann, Widener's director of technical resources. "And most of our teachers are building Web sites and using multimedia technologies like PowerPoint slides. So when the teacher is lecturing, you can follow along with the slides."

While Widener is adopting the cutting-edge technology, nearly every network equipment maker, such as Cisco Systems, 3Com and Lucent Technologies, are banking that people will want wireless Web access everywhere: at work, at home, even at airports and hotels. All three companies are coming out with wireless networking kits this year that allow laptop users to roam around in the office or home and stay connected to the Internet and corporate network.

As part of its recent restructuring, 3Com executives said sales of wireless technology are crucial to the struggling firm's future success. Cisco last week completed its $799 million acquisition of wireless firm Aironet Wireless Communications. And late last year, MobileStar Network announced a partnership with American Airlines to offer wireless Net access at its gates inside the San Jose International Airport.

Analysts predict the market will take off in the coming years as networking firms rally around a common wireless technology standard, prices fall and workers become more mobile. Analyst firm Cahners In-Stat Group expects the market will mushroom from $750 million in sales in 1999 to $2.2 billion in 2004.

"In the last year, we've seen a real surge of the mobile worker: the individual with the laptop, or the road warrior who wants Internet connectivity while on the road and in the office," said Dataquest analyst John Armstrong.

Wireless networks are nothing new. For nearly a decade, warehouses and factories and specific industries, such as hospitals, have used wireless networks, said Proxim Technologies' chief executive David King, whose company was one of the early pioneers in the market. Armed with handheld devices, doctors could keep track of patient information as they made their rounds, while warehouse workers could keep track of inventory in warehouses, he said.

But now, analysts say faster wireless speeds and an increasing population of mobile workers could jump-start the still emerging market. And as prices fall, consumers will install wireless networks in their homes, so they can connect their computers with a single Internet connection.

"One of the reasons why wireless has been slowly adopted is that it took ages for standards bodies to agree to a basic standard," said Armstrong. The new standard runs at 11 megabits per second. But the older technology crawled at 1 megabit per second, which made it too slow for most businesses, he said.

Analysts expect that companies will adopt the technology slowly, but it will pick up steam in future years as people demand it. Networking firms are heavily targeting businesses and schools, and hawking the idea that companies can install wireless networks in conference rooms, so employees can take notes on their computers and have access to the Net and email.

Wireless takes center stage Yankee Group analyst Karuna Uppal believes network administrators may balk at the idea because it could create a logistical nightmare.

"They don't want to be stuck maintaining networks of thousands of people with laptops," Uppal said. "If something goes wrong, the computer staff doesn't want to figure out where you are."

Uppal expects start-ups and small companies will become the biggest buyers of wireless networking kits because they're newer and don't have an existing installed wired network. But with employees used to other wireless technology, such as cell phones and pagers, Uppal expects workers will demand a wireless connection for their laptop computers.

"We certainly are used to being stuck at our desk, but that mentality is starting to change," Uppal said. "We live in a society where people expect you to be constantly in touch. Cell phones keep you in communication via voice. The theory is that email is just as important, so why can't I check email when I'm in an all-day meeting? That's what's driving this wireless stuff, so you can access information wherever you go."

Habermann at Widener University is choosing a wireless network because its population of students and professors roam all over campus, and because the technology is fast and cheap.

Instead of installing cables to each desk in the library, Habermann planted several pieces of wireless hardware that connect laptops to the Internet. Students can borrow PC cards with built-in radio transmitters to connect to the network.

"Let's put it this way, I could have installed 500 cables at $150 per cable, and 5 percent of it would have been in use at one time," he said. "The wireless environment saves money."

While the wireless networking market isn't yet huge, it has the potential to be, analysts say. "You're not talking mass adoption this year or next, but maybe after 2002 and beyond," Uppal said.