Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Two Tin Cans But No Wire

If you've had high-speed Internet access (I refuse to call it by the misnomer broadband) for a while, you've probably all but blocked out the sound of two modems handshaking to complete a 56Kbps connection over your phone line to your ISP that hangs up on you from time-to-time. However, most of the US and the world still uses POTS lines (Plain Old Telephone System) for their main access to the global public network.

It is just too expensive and labor intensive for everyone to get high-speed access quickly. With the recent Telecom 'crash', it's going to be even longer.

Some ISPs (many of whom have gone out of business) tried to offer high-speed wireless Internet access. They figured it was cheaper to 'beam' the information through the air instead of digging up the ground and laying fiber optic cable. However, many problems doomed it to fail. Limited frequencies were available for use, geographic obtacles blocked the ability to cover wide areas, and additional antennas had to be deployed. It required a lot of money to build these towers, and using existing cell-phone towers proved to be a challenge.

Recently, many people have created wireless "freenets" to share Cable and DSL connections using the now popular 802.11b Wireless 'Wi-Fi' hardware. 802.11b suffers the same problems that the big providers found, and its range is quite limited (just a few hundred feet under the best of conditions).

Recently, someone was able to send an 802.11b signal over 72 miles. They used 2-foot parabolic antennas. Startup cost around $3,000 - a little pricey for Farmer Joe out in the boonies.

Even at this range, the throughput is only 1Mb/s - two-thirds of a T1 - not too bad for some commercial startups to supply high-speed access to those people who might otherwise never have it.

As you may have heard, wireless hackers have figured out how to make long-range wireless antennas for their laptops and home computers out of pringles cans. They have even had better results using tin coffee cans!

The ingenuity of people never ceases to amaze me. It won't be long before they find the right 'object' to get these signals 72 miles or futher using common household items. I'm even thinking of building one of the coffee can antennas myself and maybe do a little Wardriving.

But that could be illegal, and I would never do such a thing.