HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
March 12, 2007, Herald Journal

Without wires: accessing the Internet


Investigating how the Internet affects all areas of our lives is what the Pew Internet & American Life Project or “The Project” is all about.

They are a not-for-profit organization that collects information about how we use the Internet. They make this information freely available to the public 15 to 20 times per year.

The Project just released their latest tracking report, which you can read at: (http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Wireless.Use.pdf).

This report says 34 percent of all Internet users have logged on with a “wireless” connection either at home, work, or somewhere else. “In other words,” said the report, “one-third of Internet users, either with a laptop computer, a handheld personal digital assistant (PDA), or with a cell phone, have used the Internet or checked e-mail using means such as Wi-Fi broadband or cell-phone broadband networks.”

Of that 34 percent, 49 percent were in the 30-49 age group and 30 percent were in the 18-29 age group. The 50-64 age groups had 19 percent and 65 and over polled two percent using wireless access to the Internet.

There are different types of “wireless” broadband Internet access technologies and service providers that are available in Minnesota.

Companies are positioning themselves in order to provide broadband wireless Internet.

You may have also heard that wireless Internet access is being provided by more cities and municipalities in order to attract business and “showcase” themselves as being a high-tech community.

For this column, I will be focusing on the commonly used 802.11 Wi-Fi technology.

Using “wireless fidelity” or Wi-Fi is a technology for accessing the Internet without needing a wired or cabled connection from your laptop, notebook, or “computing device” to your modem or router.

For most of us that surf the Internet wirelessly, we use what is called: Wi-Fi “over-the-air” technology. One commonly used wireless standard is called 802.11b/g. This means the speed from the computer or device back to the Wi-Fi “gateway” (equipment) where it is connected to the Internet source is capable of either: (b) 11Mbps or (g) 54Mbps.

This speed depends on the number of users accessing (sharing) the same Wi-Fi connection and their distance from it. The data uses the 2.4 GHz (gigahertz) radio frequency range. The indoor wireless coverage range is about 100 feet.

802.11n is the next Wi-Fi technology that will support up to 200Mbps using the 2.4 GHz or 5.0 GHz frequencies. It has an indoor coverage range of approximately 165 feet.

The first time I saw a Wi-Fi connection used to access the Internet on a notebook computer was a learning experience. The computer screen showed the wireless connection was 54Mbps.

I could not believe I was surfing the Internet at that speed.

I then discovered that the 54Mbps (802.11g) was just the speed of the connection from the notebook computer to the wireless “gateway” device which was a Cisco wireless router.

The router was connected to a cable modem, which was connected to the local service provider’s network and the Internet.

The cable modem had a maximum throughput (the amount of data transferred in a specific amount of time) speed of 3Mbps. So the top “speed” I could travel over the Internet was no more than 3Mbps.

How does The Project collect their information?

I found some of the reports came from telephone and online surveys. This information is augmented with research they obtained from industry experts, government agencies and educational institutions.

I am starting to think that the words “online” and “Internet” are becoming the same.

“What is the difference?” you might ask?

Years ago when we talked about being “online” that meant being connected to “a” network. This network could be something other than the public Internet. It could be a company’s private “intranet,“ some other remote communications server, commercial online service or processing device. If you go out to Google and in the search area type “define: online” you will find conflicting definitions.

Perhaps I should research this on Wikipedia.

When I read networking publications that talked about “broadband” the words “high-speed network connection” usually followed.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines “broadband” as “a high-speed Internet access or broadband, which allows users to access the Internet and Internet-related services at significantly higher speeds than those available through “dial-up” Internet access services.”

The FCC definition goes on to define the data rate; “. . .broadband service as data transmission speeds exceeding 200Kbps (kilobits per second). . . in at least one direction: downstream from the Internet to your computer or upstream from your computer to the Internet.” Here is the link: http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/highspeedinternet.html.

In this humble columnist’s opinion, 200Kbps is not fast enough to be termed a broadband speed.

ADSL, fiber-Ethernet, cable modems, and a few broadband wireless companies provide over 3Mbps – this I feel is “real broadband” speed.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the FCC to redefine what it considers broadband speed.

Getting back to The Project . . . I believe they are trying to be an informative source on what they call the “evolution” of the Internet. They gather information on how we use the Internet and make that information public. In a sense, this information becomes like a “measuring stick,” to see where we are at different points along our travels over this continuing online journey.

You can check out this full report at the Pew Internet & American Life Project website: http://www.pewinternet.org/.