Broadband to go: wireless

Sick of schlepping through airports looking for a place to get on-line while you wait out yet another delayed takeoff? Tired of stewing in your hotel waiting for e-mails with critical attachments? New wireless products from Wayport Inc. and Metricom Inc. work at broadband speeds, letting you cut the last of the ties that still bind you to phone lines.

Wayport offers its wireless broadband service in a number of airports and hotels; Metricom’s Ricochet modem provides wireless Internet access over entire urban areas. Kris Kristofferson almost got it right: For laptop users who buy these services, freedom’s just another word for no cord left to lose.

Wayport’s service works with any IEEE 802.11bps-compliant wireless Ethernet PC Card. But while 802.11bps theoretically supports transfer speeds of up to 11Mbps, actual speeds in our tests peaked at 538Kbps at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas and at 741.8Kbps in the lobby of the Sierra Suites Brookhaven hotel in Atlanta.

Why So Slow?

Tex.-based Wayport said that the bandwidth shortfall at hotels can be traced to the 1.6Mbps hookup between the hotels’ base stations and Wayport’s servers. At airports, Wayport said, speeds depend on the number of users on-line, the location, and other network-overhead issues.

Like any modem hookup, Wayport takes a toll on your laptop’s battery life. The company warns you to expect a 15 to 20 per cent reduction; in our tests, an IBM Corp. 240 ran out of juice after 55 minutes-that’s more than 25 per cent out of the usual 75-minute life span.

Wireless Ethernet cards from vendors such as Lucent Technologies Inc. and 3Com Corp. start at about US$170. Wayport charges by the “connection”-a customer’s use from first log-on until midnight of the same day. In hotels, Wayport fees usually run from US$8 to US$10 per connection, which can be added to your hotel bill. The company also plans to offer packages of ten connections for US$35. Through the end of the year, Wayport is offering a special deal that provides for up to 50 connections at no cost.

The price doesn’t seem to frighten fans of the Wayport system. Jeff Eller, managing director of the Austin, Tex.-based corporate public affairs firm Public Strategies, said that in an airport with Wayport service he can turn flight delays into productive work time.

“I had a layover at Dallas-Fort Worth and got a tremendous amount of work done,” Eller said. “It’s just like being in the office.”

Currently, Wayport’s system operates in approximately 150 hotels and in two Texas airports, but the company plans to expand service soon to airports in California, New York, and Washington State, as well as to a total of 600 hotels. In coming years, Wayport hopes to offer its service in coffee shops and bistros.

Metricom, meanwhile, is rolling out its new, 128Kbps version of Ricochet-an upgrade of the five-year-old, wireless, 28.8Kbps system that serves about 30,000 users in Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Television ads show Ricochet users cruising around in a sleek convertible, swapping documents on-line (though the company’s license agreement cautions you not to use your laptop while driving, for safety’s sake). You subscribe through one of Metricom’s resellers-which include Juno Online Services Inc., WorldCom Inc., and others-and the price fits the luxury car image: Modems cost US$299, there’s a US$30 activation fee, and monthly service costs about US$75.

The company launched the new service in Atlanta and San Diego this summer, and expects to add 41 other major metropolitan areas over the next year. Ricochet requires a gray, plastic, Palm Inc. Pilot-size external USB or serial modem (less-clunky PC Card modems from Novatel Inc. and Sierra Wireless Inc. are due by early 2001).

In our tests, Ricochet’s speeds ranged from 65Kbps via a USB hookup to a desktop in an Atlanta suburb to 45Kbps when attached to the slower serial port on a notebook without USB. The company said the modem should run for about six hours without recharging.

Business folks who travel frequently should investigate these new services, especially as they become more widespread. Wayport will be particularly attractive to occasional travelers who already use 802.11bps PC Cards for wireless home or business networks; Ricochet will look good to people who are constantly on the move in areas where the service is offered. Either way, you just have to be willing to pay the price.