Broadband is Hot, but What's Next? (Hint it's called "802.11")

Wireless home networks and the beginning of "Packetspace"
by Sky Dayton
(Originally published February, 2001)

In this column, I want to step beyond broadband and talk about the next turn in the Internet road.

As more and more people get broadband connections in their homes, we can expect more than just faster speeds and a better Internet experience. The Internet itself is going to change and become even more pervasive than it is now. The next phase of the Internet will be about connecting to the Net WIRELESSLY. And this will create something I like to call "Packetspace."

Right now, the heart of the Internet is wires—there are big, big wires (called Internet backbones) connecting the computers of Internet service providers (like EarthLink) and universities and government agencies, and then there are smaller wires spreading out from each of these, ultimately reaching your house as phone and DSL lines or cable connections.

For the most part, this will not change and most of the Internet will continue to run over good old-fashioned wires. However, the WAY we connect to the wires of the Internet will change.

Once you have an EarthLink broadband connection to your home, you have a big "pipe" connecting you to the Internet. More and more people are putting small home networks on their broadband "pipes" so that several computers can share the connection. This is a great way to make the Internet more useful—it allows you to access the Internet from more than one computer and from more than one place in your house. Wired home networks aren't easy to set up, however, because they require you to string cables to every place in your home where you'd like to connect. Luckily, setting up a home network is suddenly easier because of new advances in wireless technology.

Right now, dozens of companies are manufacturing computer cards that allow your computer to transmit and receive information wirelessly. The vast majority of these cards use a new wireless standard called 802.11. (The numbers aren't really important, but you'll be hearing a lot about 802.11 in the future, so I thought I'd mention it by name.) Devices using the new 802.11 wireless technology can communicate with each other through the air from 100–500 feet (over 1000 feet if installed in a high place without obstructions), and can send information at up to 11 million bits per second—that's 200 times faster than a dial-up connection and over 10 times faster than DSL.

This opens up all sorts of possibilities. First off, it will make home networking a snap. By simply installing cards in your computers and setting up a wireless hub, you can access your broadband Internet connection from anywhere in your house—take a laptop into the backyard to check your email, refer to your car manufacturer's Web site as you work on your car in your garage, etc.

But connecting your computers wirelessly is only the tip of the iceberg. Soon all kinds of devices, including computers from major manufacturers like Apple, Dell, and IBM, will be wireless-ready from the get-go, as soon as you take them out of the box. In the near future, your wireless home network will connect all kinds of devices: your computers, printers, Palm handhelds, home phones, cell phones, and more.

Take Ceiva for example. Ceiva is a digital picture frame that downloads your pictures from a Web site. I have one in my office, and it rotates between different pictures of my family. With wireless networks, next-generation devices like Ceiva will no longer require a phone cord plugged into the back. You'll be able to put them anywhere in your house and have them download pictures wirelessly over your broadband connection.

Internet telephony, which means sending phone calls over the Internet (where their cost is nearly free, no matter where in the world you are calling), is finally possible with broadband connections. Broadband gives you a big enough "pipe" to send high-quality phone conversations out across the Net. Soon, an 802.11 wireless card in your phone will let you talk over your broadband connection from anywhere in your house, bypassing phone companies altogether.

The 802.11 standard has actually been around for a while, but only recently has it become an agreed-upon standard. Now that manufacturers agree, they're beginning to make all kinds of 802.11 wireless devices and, consequently, the price is dropping. Two years ago, setting up a home wireless network cost thousands of dollars. Today it costs a few hundred. Soon it will cost less than $100.

Okay, so now imagine you have set up an 802.11 wireless network in your home. Here's where things get really fun.

The 500–1000-plus feet range of your 802.11 wireless devices means that your wireless network could easily overlap with your neighbor's. This ultimately means that neighbors can share Internet access by combining the "pipes" from their houses into one big pipe. Suppose you need to download a really big file. Just "borrow" some bandwidth from your neighbor to get it done faster.

The technology for this kind of sharing is just around the corner. Obviously, sharing will be voluntary and selective, and your privacy and security will be protected. But, there will be lots of benefits to sharing your bandwidth. First off, we typically use only a fraction of our available bandwidth; most of the time it just sits unused. With sharing, you might even charge others for the right to use your bandwidth! In effect, everyone with a wireless home network and a broadband Internet connection could become a mini-Internet service provider (selling or bartering their bandwidth). And when half the people and businesses in your neighborhood have wireless broadband networks, it will create a really big wireless network with dozens or hundreds of broadband connections tying it all to the Internet. With 802.11, it could happen within a year or two. And the result will be that all of us will have access to a lot more bandwidth all the time. house

When you walk down the street in one of these wirelessly networked spaces, all your Internet devices will light up, letting you know that you have lots of cheap options for accessing the Internet. Your Palm might tell you that you can now send and receive email over a fast connection (even quote you prices, like "Joe is offering Net access at $4.00/day; Sally's is $1.00/hour"). Your cell phone might light up and tell you that you can now make a cell phone call over the Net to anywhere in the world for $0.05.

Over the Internet, information is sent as "packets," small chunks of information. In this new wireless world, packets would be flying through the air in every direction, finding their way to broadband Internet connections and getting routed across the Net. Anyone with a wireless-enabled device (soon that'll be ALL devices) can walk into such a space and begin communicating with anyone anywhere, sending out and receiving packets of information. That's why I like to call areas such as this that have been saturated by wireless networks "Packetspace."

Packetspace is the next phase of the Internet. On top of the wired heart of the Internet we will have a wireless world, where the Internet simply exists everywhere. All of this may sound a little far-out, but it's coming very soon. Companies are already beginning to make high-traffic public areas like airports into Packetspace by installing wireless network hubs and high-speed Internet connections.

Your EarthLink broadband connection is the first step. EarthLink is here to help you get the most out of your Internet experience now and in the future, whether it's over wires or through Packetspace. You will be hearing more about this wireless technology from us as it develops. The next few years are going to be very interesting!