Your wireless future

December 2002

In last month's very funny column we talked about getting married to Google. This month's highly entertaining column is about divorce. It's time to put asunder those ties that bind, to cleave those cords and cables in your life and live a free, unfettered, untethered life.

First off, think of the clutter of wires surrounding your computer. A new wireless technology called Bluetooth banishes these.

It's a wireless personal area network that works at a range up to about 30 feet. It automatically senses other Bluetooth devices in the environment and communicates with them using radio waves--much like a cordless phone communicates with its base station.

Bluetooth devices are now starting to come out, and my Macintosh operating system has Bluetooth software built in. If I were to add a Bluetooth transceiver to my computer, and buy Bluetooth-enabled devices, I could say goodbye to the cords that connect my keyboard, mouse, printer, and more.

But the vision of Bluetooth goes far beyond computer components. Imagine all your devices and appliances talking to one another. You could wirelessly program your VCR from your computer. Your wall clock could be synchronized with the highly accurate network time on your computer.

Another really cool development goes by the name of 802.11b or Wi-Fi. Whereas Bluetooth has a 30-foot range, Wi-Fi has a range of about 300 feet and is used for local area networks, such as in a home, business, or classroom. People love Wi-Fi. They can have access to the Internet wherever they are in their house or business--no wires needed.

So if you have Wi-Fi, do you still want Bluetooth? Yes. They serve different purposes. While Bluetooth can allow all manner of devices to communicate with each other over a short distance, Wi-Fi mainly replaces the network cables that run from one room to the next.

A third area of the wireless revolution goes far beyond the 300-foot limitation. Think of cell phones and pagers, which have a much longer range. Although today's cell phones increasingly have access to the Internet, the screens are small, and from what I understand, data transfer speeds are slow.

The next step seems to be combining fast broadband speeds, such as those available via Ethernet and cable and DSL, with the range of mobile telephony. I've recently been talking to Shadow, Inc, a company based in Fairfield that's starting to roll out wireless Internet access in eastern Iowa that reaches miles.

Just like the person who is thrilled to have wireless Internet access throughout his home, Shadow's very competitively priced wireless broadband access lets you have Internet access wherever you are in a city, for example. And as they roll out their service to more cities, you can take your laptop from city to city and have access.

Here's what the future holds: wherever you are, you'll be connected via whatever device you have in hand, and all those devices will communicate with all your other devices. It's happening fast.

And into this blissful future let's interject a note of caution. All of this technology uses radio waves--omnidirectional electromagnetic waves. When your cordless phone communicates with its base, it's using a transmitter to broadcast your conversation, and the phone's base receives that transmission and sends it over a phone line. Because your conversation is being broadcast, it's actually possible for people to use scanners to tune it in. I've known this to happen, though I think it's less common nowadays because of legal restrictions.

It's also a consideration with Wi-Fi. There's actually a whole subculture of people who drive around neighborhoods and tap into Wi-Fi networks whose 300-foot range extends beyond home or office. Network security tools can often keep them from intercepting your data transmissions, but so far it's still pretty easy for them to borrow your network access.

In general I that the security issues surrounding wireless are being resolved but it is definitely something you should be aware of. Shadow, Inc., for example, says that security is solid on its wireless network.

Another concern is health. Our brain and central nervous system use minute electrical impulses to transmit information. The electromagnetic waves being transmitted by your devices could cause some harm. Important considerations are probably how strong they are and how close you are to the transmitter. Your cell phone, right next to your brain, is broadcasting a radio signal strong enough to travel for miles. That sounds dangerous to me. Weak signals as in Bluetooth are likely safer than cell phones.

So enjoy freedom of your wireless future, but do be careful.

© 2002 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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