Put simply, WiFi is a technology that connects your computer to an internet access point using radio signals. There are now thousands of these access points (more commonly known as hotspots) across the UK, situated in cafes, hotels, airport terminals and motorway service stations. The biggest UK suppliers of these access points are BT Openzone and The Cloud.
To use a WiFi connection, you have to be within a bubble of connectivity that radiates around the access point over a distance of up to 100 metres in the open. Once inside the ‘live’ area you can enjoy access speeds up to 10 times faster than any of the mobile networks can offer.
O2 and T-Mobile already include WiFi functionality in their 3G cards, along with software that allows you to switch from GPRS/3G to Wireless LAN. They also bundle WiFi charges onto your mobile bill. Orange is planning to introduce WiFi functionality in its next generation of cards while Vodafone offers software to seamlessly switch between network and hotspot connectivity for those who supplement their 3G card with a separate WiFi Card. If you want WiFi access through a PDA, O2’s XDA III has the technology on board.
But it’s important to stress that you don’t need to be a mobile phone company customer to take advantage of Wireless LAN. Standalone WiFi cards can be bought for between £30 and £50. Most of them plug into laptop PCII slots but you can also buy versions designed for USB ports. Belkin and Linksys are the main suppliers. If you have a Centrino chip in your laptop, you won’t need a card as these devices are already WiFi enabled.
And with a card or Centrino chip you can take advantage of any WiFi hotspot, although in most cases you will have to pay. This can be either on a pay as you go or subscription basis and can be quite pricey. It may be more cost-effective to buy your hotspot access as part of a mobile operator’s bundle.
Until recently, one major disadvantage of WiFi was that it was useless while on the move. That is beginning to change. T-Mobile has WiFi enabled selected London to Brighton train services (the hotspot is the train), Lufthansa offers connectivity on flights and Boeing is building Wireless LAN functionality into new jets. In short, it is becoming a real alternative to the mobile networks.
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