- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

The market for wireless computing is sizzling, but computer users hoping to install the technology this holiday season should be aware that setting up an untethered network is not necessarily tangle-proof.

Grocery store manager Joe Swantack is enjoying newfound freedom. Because of wireless technology he is no longer confined to the desktop computer in the basement of his home in Perrysburg, Ohio. And he is not alone.

The average price of a wireless home “access point” has dropped from $140 in 2002 to $88, and is expected to fall to about $60 next year. Even discount retailer Wal-Mart sells the gear that once belonged only to the technophile set.

Wireless networking, known as Wi-Fi, allows users to link multiple computers or other devices, such as printers, to each other and to the Internet without cables.

It works similarly to a cordless phone setup. The base station that your computer network needs is a device known as an access point, or gateway, that plugs into your cable or DSL modem and transmits data in radio signals.

The most common access-point devices also contain routers, which are necessary to let multiple computers share an Internet connection. Without a router, a gateway can send wireless Internet access to only one computer.

Each device on the wireless network needs to be able to receive the signals with the attachment of special Wi-Fi cards or adapters. Many new laptops now include wireless capabilities as a standard.

If any installation problems arise, they usually occur in getting the devices to communicate with each other. The newest computer operating systems — Windows XP and Mac OS X — have made the configuration process simpler, but the industry is still far from being able to say the majority of setups occur without a hitch, said Craig Mathias, a wireless industry analyst with the Farpoint Group.

Users can find themselves trapped in a jumble of unfamiliar computer and radio networking lingo. Product manuals can be confusing, and even tech-savvy consumers have issued online pleas for help.

Mr. Swantack remembers the agony that preceded his wireless joy.

“It’s not nearly as trouble-free as oftentimes it’s touted,” Mr. Swantack said. “I thought you’d plug it in and turn it on and it would work, but it was more complicated than that.”

Too proud to ask for sales help at Best Buy, Mr. Swantack purchased only an access point, not knowing he needed a router to set up a network of multiple computers. He returned to the store to get the router.

He was stuck again after setting it up. After frustrating hours of fiddling, he finally called his cable provider. A service representative walked him through the process over the phone and got the wireless network working.

Interest in wireless home networking has soared now that a third of the nation’s households are equipped with more than one computer and high-speed broadband Internet access. (A dial-up connection is comparatively slow and would be painstakingly slower if Web access had to be shared across a home network.)

Worldwide, shipments of home Wi-Fi equipment are expected to more than double to 8 million units in 2003 from 3 million last year, according to market research firm In-Stat/MDR.

“It used to be a weird technology, but now it’s commoditized,” said In-Stat/MDR analyst Gemma Paulo.

Wireless technology will be all the more important as consumers look to move all kinds of digital data, from music to video, to various gadgets throughout the home. Some wireless media adapters now let users take songs or photos stored on their computers and play them on TVs and stereo systems. And Wi-Fi Web cameras can wirelessly transmit images to Web browsers or computer hard drives.

Wireless “bridge” devices are also available for the Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation 2 game consoles so users can connect to home networks for online gaming.

Best Buy saw that less tech-savvy consumers were gobbling up wireless gear this year and began offering an in-home Wi-Fi installation service.

“Prices have dropped so dramatically, it’s brought in a whole new segment of customers,” said Josh Will, Best Buy’s leader for computer peripherals.

Despite installation hiccups, many agree that going wireless is easier than the alternative — running cables from room to room.

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