Wireless 'cloud' may offer silver lining
Or is it just 'pie-in-the-sky' technology?
ATHENS, Georgia (CNN) -- Wireless technology is a little bit like wind power, electric cars and voice recognition -- for several years, it's been "just about" to be huge.
While Athens, Georgia, may not be mentioned in the same breath as tech hubs like San Francisco, Seattle or Hong Kong, this fall, its residents and tourists can be part of a wireless experiment that is wide open for innovation.
"A lot of people think that technology is holding back wireless communication, but it's not," said Scott Shamp, director of the University of Georgia's New Media Institute. "It's compelling uses that are holding back wireless. Nobody knows what it's good for because they haven't had an opportunity to experiment. And so what we're about is experimenting with new types of communication."
The university has joined with local government to create WAG, the Wireless Athens Group.
They're building a "cloud" over several blocks of the downtown area where anyone with the right equipment can have free Internet access.
The cloud now covers about three blocks, and it will soon expand to 24.
The right equipment is what's known as an 802.11b card. (That catchy name comes from an engineering standards group.) 802.11b, also known as Wi-Fi, or Wireless Fidelity, is a current wireless-networking standard, transmitting data at 11 Mbps.
The cards are available for about $100 from most electronics stores, and can be used in a laptop, PDA (personal digital assistant) or Pocket PC. The system also works with Bluetooth technology.
From a park bench or an outdoor cafe, a student, office worker, or tourist can access the Internet if they're in range of the WAG boxes that are mounted on light poles around the city. The signals won't penetrate most walls or buildings, so the cloud will be primarily an outdoor experience. Signals are sent back to servers at the New Media Institute, the hub of this wireless experiment.
"We're essentially giving the Wireless Athens Group ten poles in the downtown area and power for them," said Sandi Turner, Athens/Clark County Public Information Officer.
"We feel like this cloud will be just one more service we can offer to high tech industries that may want to relocate to Athens," said Turner.
What's in it for me?
In an informal survey of some of the businesses under the Athens cloud, reactions varied.
"I don't even know how to turn a computer on," said Marvin Eberhart, who's been repairing shoes for more than 60 years. "I just don't think I need it," said Eberhart, considered an Athens institution.
Others thought the cloud had possibilities.
"If it brings more business down here I think it would be great," said Jimmy Johnson, manager of Blue Sky Coffeehouse.
Scott Shamp says the practical applications are as crucial as the technology itself.
"First you have to ask, what can wireless do, then you have to ask, what can it do to make money," he said.
Finding those answers will be one assignment that Shamp's students at Georgia's School of Journalism and Mass Communication will take on this fall. They'll be assigned to work with local merchants to come up with ideas that use wireless capabilities to bring in business.
Shamp says the wireless world right now is where the Internet was in about 1994, wide open for innovation and ideas.
"It's not controlled by big corporations yet, and you've got people experimenting and building things that have the potential to change our lives," he said.
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