WASHINGTON -- It's Saturday afternoon, and Art Slater sits at his perch in the bay window of the Cyberstop Cafe.
The thin card he slides into the side of his laptop detects a wireless signal, an icon pops up on the bottom of the screen, and Slater clicks on it to connect to the signal coming from the Dupont Circle cafe's back offices 20 feet away.
With that, he's on the Internet, with a connection faster than anything at home.
Outside on the patio, Matt O'Neill is transmitting files of art over the same airwaves as Slater.
Across town, Nicholas Cho installed a similar wireless connection in his cafe, Murky Coffee. A for-fee version of the same technology is available in 145 Starbucks coffee bars around the area.
And in a Leesburg, Va., subdivision 40 miles from downtown, Laurie and Rich Dunham are making a tiny profit selling a wireless Internet service broadcast from their rooftop to their neighbors' homes.
The WiFi networking all these people are using could not have been purchased for any price 10 years ago. Five years ago it was just arriving in the market, advertised solely as a cheap way to network computers in individual homes and classrooms.
But WiFi (short for "wireless fidelity," and sometimes referred to by the technical description "802.11b") is going lots of other places. It began life as an alternative to wired Ethernet networks, but it has grown into a tool to expand the boundaries of the Internet.
The number of locations with WiFi service -- or "hot spots" -- quadrupled last year, to just under 4,000 nationwide, according to the research firm Instat/MDR.
At home, a WiFi setup can be quite simple. A typical rig consists of a $100-or-less access point, plus under-$50 receivers in each computer. The access point takes a broadband or dial-up Internet connection and shares it with any authorized computer within range.
To take WiFi out of the home and provide Internet access to strangers involves a few changes. Sometimes, the WiFi antenna has to be moved to rooftops to allow the signal to go farther, with other antennas to relay it.
Companies that charge for service, and therefore don't want freeloaders riding their airwaves, have to deploy software to control access by subscribers. For-pay WiFi services may provide extra security with "virtual private network" software that encrypts network traffic.
Many companies think they can make a profit from this -- even while some have gone bust in the attempt. The best-known WiFi businesses consist of networks in cafes, hotels and airports that are marketed to business travelers and Internet addicts who might subscribe to a second Internet access service to get that connectivity away from home. Some are start-ups (Boingo Wireless, Cometa Networks, Wayport and Wise Technologies, to name a few), while others, such the wireless-phone firm T-Mobile USA, market WiFi as an adjunct to existing services.
Wayport has installed WiFi in 30 Washington area hotels and saw traffic double in Washington and around the country last year, said Daniel Lowden, vice president of marketing for the Austin, Texas-based company. An average of 9.8 percent of people staying in those hotels use their wireless service -- lower than the 25 percent usage rate in the San Francisco area but above the national average of 6 percent, he said.
Wayport has 170,000 daily or monthly subscribers, up from 50,000 a year ago, Lowden said, and will generate enough cash to cover operating expenses within a few months. Prices range from $6.95 for one-time usage within an airport, to $49.95 monthly unlimited service at any Wayport access point.
Some, mostly smaller local companies, are using WiFi to transmit high-speed Internet connections to areas that lack alternatives to slow, dial-up modem access.
Laurie Dunham founded East Statford Wireless Internet Service LLC out of her Leesburg home last July, when neither cable-modem nor digital-subscriber-line service was available in her subdivision.
"Let's take the bull by the horns," she said. After sending leaflets to neighbors, she and her engineer husband, Rich, discovered they had enough nearby interest to set up their own Internet service. They set up specialized antennas on rooftops and now provide access at $45 a month to 30 neighbors who live within a one-mile radius of their home.
But wireless communications -- not just WiFi, but in general -- has turned out to be a tar pit for many start-ups.
"Companies ... went out of business for a reason -- because the market was not large enough for those networks to be profitable," said Jane Zweig, chief executive of the Shosteck Group, a Wheaton, Md.-based market-research firm. "Those reasons still exist."
It's unclear how many laptop users want to use the service and would be willing to pay for it, Zweig said. "The question is not: Will people use it? It is: Is that market large enough to make business sense?"
In February, New York-based Joltage Networks closed because it didn't attract enough users. Earlier this month, T-Mobile, the company responsible for installing wireless service in Starbucks stores, slashed its prices from 25 cents to 10 cents per minute, an indication usage hasn't taken off as quickly as anticipated.
One reason might be that many locations, like Cyberstop and Murky Coffee, offer WiFi free.
Cho, the owner of Murky Coffee, said he never considered charging for WiFi.
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