Can Slow-and-Steady Win the Wireless Race?

Not long ago, I walked into a hotel that advertised “high-speed Internet.” Being a veteran road warrior, I went to the front desk to see if the place really offered true high-speed Internet. If not, I’d try the hotel across the street.

(Digression: I once checked into a hotel in Reno, Nevada, that advertised “high-speed Internet.” I found only a standard phone jack. After calling around, I finally found someone who explained that my room was on a “special” floor that offered data jacks. This person further explained that “dedicated” phone jacks yield better data rates than those nasty in-the-side-of-the-phone-base ones. Data rates such as 48Kbps, I asked? He didn’t know. That’s a true story, and it didn’t happen back in the 20th century, but just last year. This is why I tend to surround “high-speed Internet” with quotation marks. But I’ll knock off the quotes for the rest of the article.)

Anyway, I discovered that the hotel had wireless high-speed Internet. I’ve loitered in hotel lobbies waiting for Microsoft Outlook to download one email message, without an attachment, for about 40 minutes on a wireless high-speed Internet connection, so I tend to consider the phrase “wireless high-speed Internet” something of an oxymoron. The hotel across the street also offered wireless Internet, so I gave up and checked into the original hotel.

Which is when the fun began.

Have you ever fired up your laptop and roamed the nooks, crannies, and corners of your hotel room to find at least some wireless reception? Of course you have. We all have. The trick to finding a room with good reception, as you might know, is to ask where the wireless Access Points (WAPs) are. Even the least technical-minded front-desk personnel seem to know the answer to that question.

Which brings me to my point: Why are we so crazy about wireless? Sure, it offers the promise of letting you check email and surf the Web anywhere. But if I kept promises as badly as wireless has, well, I’d be out of business or in court. And as we progress from 802.11b to 802.11g to 802.11n and so on, the situation gets worse, as every new standard offers better speed—but at the cost of either chewing up more bandwidth or imposing gravely shorter distance restrictions, or both.

Allow me to propose something to the wireless-standard gods: 802.11L—L, as in less speed. But it’d also be less trouble getting connected, which means a need for less technical support, and also less irritation among customers.

Think about it: The biggest annoyance about wireless is getting the silly thing to work, which essentially boils down to getting an adequate signal. Yes, some places have sufficient local support to be able to offer “very good” to “excellent” signal strength everywhere within their confines, but not too many of them. In most public places, wireless capability is a crapshoot with dice that are loaded far out of your favor. So, instead of trying to offer faster and faster connections to fewer and fewer people, why not come up with a standard that offers, say, 5Mbps wirelessly. Yes, I know, that comes out to about 1.5 megabits per second in the real world, but what’s wrong with that? Heck, that’s the equivalent of a T1—not bad at all. And in return, we’d be able to acquire a usable signal over a larger geographical area.

Maybe the idea sounds goofy when you first read it, but give it some thought. I think you’ll see that it’s, well, an L of a good idea.

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