Like cells phones, Wi-Fi untethers people. It links them to the Net without hardwired connections. Wi-Fi uses unregulated radio spectrum to link high-speed internet connections to computers within 300 feet. Like other grassroots tech revolutions (Napster, Linux), Wi-Fi began with kids doing their own thing -- in this case, building Wi-Fi "hot spots" in San Francisco, New York, Portland, Ore., and other cities. Now, the challenge is to take these jury-rigged locations and build reliable, secure national and international Wi-Fi networks. Intel (INTC
), IBM (IBM
), and AT&T (T
) have teamed up to do just that. Intel has a new Wi-Fi chip, the Centrino, and Dell (DELL
), Apple (AAPL
), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ
) are making their new laptops and PCs Wi-Fi ready. Starbucks already sells access to the net via Wi-Fi in many of its stores, and McDonald's is following. The biggest market may be Wi-Fi-ing people's homes.
It's easy to get breathless about innovation. Building a business model off Wi-Fi that actually generates profits is still a work in progress. But watching this new technology bubble up from the streets is a wonderful reminder that innovation is alive and well in the U.S.