Feature

Wi-Fi: A boom with growing pains

The Wi-Fi explosion is fueling new battles for airwave access.

Wi-Fi is rapidly moving out of the home, said Jennifer Van Grove in CNET.com. The latest foray is a joint effort by Facebook and Cisco to offer a “social Wi-Fi option” to small and medium-size businesses. Very soon, “the average restaurant diner, airport-goer, or superstore shopper” will start seeing Facebook-sponsored Wi-Fi. There is a catch, of course: To use Facebook Wi-Fi, users will have to click on a blue “check-in” button that announces their whereabouts to all of their friends. That will give valuable demographic data to merchants, and—Facebook hopes—-encourage them to buy more ads. The social network says that once the connection is made, it has no access to users’ browsing activities on the Wi-Fi network. That reassurance “will be good enough for some”—but not for everyone.

The Wi-Fi explosion is fueling new battles for airwave access, said Ryan Knutson and Shalini Ramachandran in The Wall Street Journal. Cable and tech companies, worried about slow speeds from increased congestion, are asking the Federal Communications Commission to unlock spectrum that is currently reserved for car companies. Automakers want to use it to allow vehicles to communicate wirelessly with each other, and say that sharing that spectrum with non-automotive users would threaten safety. Clearly the FCC faces a daunting challenge as it tries to allocate spectrum “to the growing number of industries finding new ways to put it to use.”

Yet amid the boom, mobile-device users “are increasingly casting a skeptical eye on public Wi-Fi,” said Mikael Ricknäs in PCWorld.com. To limit the risk of your data being intercepted and misused, the Wi-Fi Alliance, the trade association that certifies Wi-Fi products, is promoting a new standard called Passpoint, which is meant to secure and encrypt data flowing through public Wi-Fi hot spots and make them “both safer and easier to use.” The alliance also says its new equipment standard, known as 802.11ac, will improve performance “in crowded environments.”

Upgrading your home router will also give you better range and speed, said Eric A. Taub in The New York Times. But before shelling out for new equipment, try putting your router in the open and near the center of your home, where it can maximize coverage. And if you’re still having signal problems, try using a range extender, which costs anywhere from $50 to $100. But you’ll likely never attain the superfast speed your network equipment advertises. “Like the 180 miles per hour designation on your car’s speedometer, it is a number that looks good, but one you will never achieve.”

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