Hitting the Road with Wireless LANs


By Stephen H. Wildstrom I'm sitting in an American Airlines departure lounge at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, reading and answering my e-mail. I'm not working offline, so I can exchange messages. Nor am I working on some sluggish wireless connection. I'm sending and receiving mail and checking out Web pages at full network speed.

While wireless LANs based in the IEEE 802.11b standard are becoming common in offices and schools, they're still rare in public places. But that will change quickly if a couple of companies have their way. The service at DFW is provided by Richardson (Tex.) -based MobileStar, (www.mobilestar.com), which also provides wireless service in American Airlines' gate areas and Admirals Clubs at a number of airports and in common areas at several dozen hotels. MobileStar is also working with Microsoft to provide public service at Starbucks stores around the country. Its Austin-based competitor, Wayport (www.wayport.com), runs wireless LANs at Austin Bergstrom, DFW, Seattle-Tacoma, and San Jose airports as well as at a number of hotels.

For anyone whose laptop is set up to work on a wireless LAN, using these public systems could hardly be simpler. To connect to MobileStar, I inserted my wireless LAN card (any card bearing the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Assn.'s Wi-Fi logo should work) and powered up. When I started my browser, I got a screen inviting me to log on to MobileStar, either by entering a user name and password or by giving credit-card information for the $6.95 daily pay-as-you-go service. Just like that, I was on the Net, grabbing the messages that had piled up during my plane trip.

PAYMENT PLANS. MobileStar and Wayport have adopted different payment models. MobileStar works a lot like wireless phone service. The company offers four plans, ranging from $2.50 a month plus 10 cents for each minute after the first 15 to $59.95 for unlimited monthly service. Wayport works more like a prepaid phone card. You buy $49.95 worth of service, and your account is charged $4.95 for each airport connection and $7.95 per hotel use.

Wayport also provides high-speed wired Ethernet connections to hotel rooms. Because radio waves don't penetrate concrete walls very well, wireless in-room service is generally not practical.

You should be aware of a couple of things if you want to try one of these services. First, you can't directly access most corporate networks that are protected by a firewall. Fortunately, most companies are supporting virtual private networks that, with proper software and credentials, allow secure access over the public Internet. Second, these public networks don't use even the shaky data encryption that's part of the 802.11 standard, so anything you send is susceptible to fairly simple snooping. But since VPN software uses strong encryption to protect all traffic, so you can safely exchange data with your corporate network.

Try it the next time you're in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. You'll be favorably impressed, as I was. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online


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