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SITTING, SIPPING & Surfing

More than the coffee is hot at Starbucks. So is wireless Internet access.

It's also hot at the Blackhawk Coffee Cafe in Tampa, the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort, Joffrey's in Ybor City, the Wyndham Westshore and the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel.

Even Kampgrounds of America will install networks so campers can sit by the fire with their laptops and check their e-mail.

It's known as Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, and its access points are known as hot spots. Businesses are racing to set up service, produce wireless gadgets and position themselves for what they think is the dawn of the next great tech revolution.

At least for now, though, the Wi-Fi revolution is starting without many consumers taking up the cause. Only about 2.5-million users tried the hot spot services by the end of last year, according to Gartner Inc., a technology research company, "and the vast majority of these were infrequent users attracted by opportunities to use a service just once or twice, often free of charge."

Yet Wi-Fi has created an industry buzz that brings back memories of the hype during the tech boom of the 1990s. Intel chief executive Craig Barrett has said Wi-Fi "will change the way people use computers."

Fueling the anticipated growth is the increasing number of people who use high-speed Internet connections at home or the office and presumably will grow eager to use similar service when they're mobile.

In fact, Wi-Fi got its start as a way for home users to set up wireless networks and share high-speed Internet access with other family members.

"What we're really trying to sell to our customers is a broadband experience," said Philip Nutsugah, executive director of product development and management for Verizon Communications.

The company recently started installing hot spots at phone booths in New York City as an "amenity," allowing subscribers to Verizon's online services free wireless access.

"It's going to be a tough sell for the average consumer to want to pay for Wi-Fi," Nutsugah said. "We don't view Wi-Fi as a stand-alone revenue generator."

The company says it will expand to other cities but has not given any specifics. For now, Nutsugah says Verizon is pleased with the early results from New York.

The tech industry and experts see Wi-Fi as a cornerstone of the vision of people being connected to the Internet wherever they go. While promoters of Wi-Fi wait for consumers to start sharing their zeal, businesses are starting to find practical applications for the relatively low-cost communications tool. They range from connecting mobile sales staffs to setting up more efficient internal networks at the office.

As with many technologies in their infancy, Wi-Fi seems to pose more questions than answers. Can companies make a profit from it? Will users be willing to pay for access, or will it be free? Will it eventually compete with cell phone providers to deliver wireless data services?

"It's one of those areas where analysts don't know where this is going to wind up," said Ken Dulaney, a research director at Gartner Inc. "It's so cheap and so accessible people are just putting it in."

Wi-Fi works on unregulated radio frequencies. It's fast. With the most commonly used Wi-Fi standard, known as 802.11b, it's 10 to 20 times speedier than dial-up Internet access. A newer version called 802.11g is even faster.

It's also simple and inexpensive to set up. A home network to share an Internet connection can cost as little as $100, and it doesn't require pulling wires through an attic or walls. Commercial sites can cost several thousand dollars to install and as much as $500 a month for access fees.

Within two years, experts say, most laptop computers will have Wi-Fi capabilities built in, as will many personal digital assistants. Adding a wireless card to a laptop or PDA can cost about $50. Eventually cell phones may have the capability of switching between a cell network and a Wi-Fi connection.

And hot spots will be more common. Despite the hype, Wi-Fi is not everywhere. The Wi-Fi Alliance (www.wi-fi.org) estimates that only about 5,000 hot spots are available in the United States and about 12,000 worldwide. Gartner's estimate is higher, about 14,000 in the United States.

"Basically, three years ago there was zero," said C. Brian Grimm, communications director for the alliance, a consortium of more than 180 companies that sets technical standards and ensures that Wi-Fi devices work with each other.

So far, the Tampa Bay area is more of a lukewarm than hot spot for Wi-Fi. According to a survey sponsored by Intel, the giant chipmaker, the area ranks 55th out of 100 for its wireless capabilities. Results were based on a number of factors, including hot spots.

Businesses are feverishly working to add to the network. Starbucks teamed with T-Mobile last August. It now has more than 2,100 shops online and expects to have 2,600 by December.

But finding hot spots can be a challenge (See story, page XX). And even if someone finds a hot spot, many require subscriptions for access. For example, to go online at Starbucks, users have to subscribe to T-Mobile Wi-Fi (www.t-mobile.com/hotspot).

If they use competing Wi-Fi services from Boingo (www.boingo.com), Wayport (www.wayport.com) or another company, they are out of luck.

The services have not set up roaming agreements for shared coverage like those used in the cell phone industry, yet Wi-Fi users are going to want the same convenience and ease of payment. "The biggest issue right now is billing," Dulaney of Gartner said.

Then there are technical limitations. While the wireless signal can be picked up from as far as 300 feet, it's generally more effective at 150 feet or less. However, the technology is rapidly improving. Some systems can transmit up to 1,000 feet, and Intel, which is heavily promoting mobile access, is experimenting with a system that would cover 16 miles.

As with cable modem Internet access, too many users can slow down a hot spot, and the industry is working on ways to beef up its security.

Fees can vary widely, too. You can pay by the minute (10 cents or so), by the month ($30 to $70, depending on service and contract) or by a "connect day" ($7 to $10) for access during a specified time.

Some technological free spirits in communities such as Tallahassee have set up free Wi-Fi access for sections of cities. In some cities, cable operators have cracked down on subscribers who try to share their high-speed connection through Wi-Fi.

In Tallahassee some commercial providers have objected to free competition and plans to expand the network countywide.

"The public has to determine what's best for the city as a whole vs. a publicly traded company," said Rick Kearney, who came up for the idea of the Digital Canopy network around the Capitol in Tallahassee.

It began last year as a public-private partnership, with business and government donating equipment and access. Kearney, chairman of IT Florida, a group representing the state's high-tech industry, says the downtown coverage initially was aimed at lawyers, lobbyists and other professionals who work near the Capitol.

It has expanded. The group says hundreds of people have signed up for access at its site (www.digitalcanopy.com). And it has become a focal point for economic development.

"It's our calling card to show how advanced we are," said Kearney, who is also chief executive of Mainline Information Systems, a tech consulting and services company.

But the real muscle behind Wi-Fi is coming from tech heavyweights. IBM, Intel and AT&T are major backers of Cometa Networks, a company started to set up thousands of hot spots across the country by early next year.

McDonald's is beginning to roll out Wi-Fi in its restaurants. (Introductory offer in New York: an hour online free with the purchase of a value meal). But the troubled fast-food chain isn't using WiFi solely as a perk for customers.

The chain also may use the wireless network for tracking inventory with regional offices instead of through costlier phone line networks, according to Norm Korey, IBM's vice president and general manager of wireless e-business. And some restaurants are using it to beef up security through wireless video surveillance.

Starbucks may not make money off the Internet access, but it may sell more coffee and desserts to people who sit, sip and surf. And hotels want to attract business travelers looking for the convenience of a high-speed connection.

"Wi-Fi is the killer enabler" in mobile technology, IBM's Korey said.

_ Times news researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this story, which includes information from Times wires. Dave Gussow can be reached at gussowsptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

Steve Cochran, co-founder and executive vice president of sales and business development for hearUare Communications of San Jose, Calif., accesses the Internet on his laptop using a Wi-Fi connection at the Starbucks Cafe at BayWalk in St. Petersburg on June 30.

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