What's New for 2006

Wireless Connectivity Everywhere

Long-distance wireless is coming, but notebook-based WiMax is still some way off.

Despite all the hype surrounding wireless networking, the fact remains that finding a public Wi-Fi connection still takes some work. Next year, finding a wireless connection should start to get easier, thanks to a long-range broadband wireless technology from Intel called WiMax. According to an Intel spokesperson a WiMax signal "can carry 50 miles in tests, but in reality about half that."

The first WiMax version to arrive will be "fixed WiMax," in which a tower beams the WiMax signal and a WiMax router receives it. A Wi-Fi access point then broadcasts the signal its normal 150 feet. So the first versions will obviate only the need to run a cable into your home. The first WiMax-compatible routers have already appeared, with more expected to follow early next year. When "mobile WiMax" arrives in late 2007, WiMax-compatible notebooks will be able to pick up signals directly from the tower, which means that if you're within a tower's extensive range, you'll have a broadband connection.

Look for more municipalities, which may be experimenting with citywide public wireless programs already, to consider fixed WiMax as another option.

Long-Range Wireless Today

Photograph: Rick Rizner
If you can't wait wait until 2007 for pervasive wireless Net access, offerings from cellular providers Cingular, Sprint, and Verizon can bridge the gap. All are rolling out their high-speed (400 or 700 kbps, depending on the technology) networks at a rapid clip, with service already available in many metropolitan areas. The programs require a special PC Card modem (Sprint sells a $250 Sierra Wireless AirCard for access to its EvDO network, for example), and the monthly plan doesn't come cheap (usually around $60, depending on service level). Also, keep an eye out for notebooks like Lenovo's ThinkPad Z Series, which you can order with high-speed wireless access built-in.

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