BY ANTHONY CRUPI Wi-Fi has officially arrived, and the proof is in the pudding — or the milk shake. McDonald’s Corp. last week introduced free wireless Internet service to diners in ten of its Manhattan-area restaurants as part of an initiative that will expand to several hundred outlets by year’s end. The launch of McDonald’s Wi-Fi offering — which coincided with Intel’s introduction of its speedy Centrino mobile chip (1.6 GHz, 802.11b-enabled) — marks the second time a major food chain has gotten into the wireless game. (Starbucks charges its customers $6 for an hour’s worth of caffeinated Wi-Fi access.) While there have been relatively few takers queuing up for Big Macs and broadband in midtown, Intel has “Supersized” its role in the development of Wi-Fi. The chipset manufacturer opened its coffers to a pair of startups last week, bringing the number of Wi-Fi companies it has funded since 1999 to 15. Along with IBM and AT&T, Intel is also part of the Cometa triad, a company birthed in December with the mandate of creating a nationwide network of Wi-Fi hot spots. Cometa holds the McDonald’s contract, although other ISPs — including T-Mobile, which provides Wi-Fi service to Starbucks — are said to be in talks with the burger chain. While the joint demonstration of Cometa’s Wi-Fi service and the Centrino chip saw data rates sliding along at a more-than-respectable 1.5 Mbps (T1 speed), most 802.11b users are used to a much pokier experience. As wireless usage approaches critical mass — the red dots that indicate active nodes on Manhattan’s Wi-Fi map make the island look like a french fry dipped in ketchup — those data rates will have to increase exponentially. It’s against this backdrop that the people in the white lab coats in emerging business departments have begun to reassess ultra-wideband. UWB advocates claim the technology offers a data-rate potential more than ten times that of 802.11b. True to form, Intel has an initiative there as well. Ben Manny, who heads up Intel’s UWB initiative, said, “The concept of UWB is a unique opportunity, but we now have to address issues of backwards-compatibility. It’s going to be very difficult to get all of these companies in the industry to agree on standards.” If it were up to the satellite signal providers that serve cable operators, UWB would disappear into the ether. Last month, a coalition led by the Satellite Industry Association, and supplemented by a handful of cable programmers, filed petitions with the FCC claiming that UWB may interfere with C-band transmissions. At greatest risk is the 3.7-to-4.2-GHz band cable ops use to downlink video programming. “Widespread deployment of UWB devices under current technical rules could cause significant disruption to video programming distribution,” Steven Teplitz, an AOL Time Warner VP, wrote to the FCC last month. Viacom filed a similar letter. The FCC played down the impact of UWB on satellites or any other kinds of devices, saying that interference is highly unlikely. If it were to occur, it would be practically unnoticeable, Manny said, creating the same level of aggravation as “when I drape my phone cord over my PC.” Ultimately, the FCC denied the petitions, clearing the way for a conservative ramping up of UWB devices. “[This] decision should be seen as a reaffirmation that UWB is here to stay,” said FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, adding that the regulatory body will test emerging UWB devices and “be alert for interference complaints.” Although Intel does not expect commercial shipments of UWB gear before 2005 or 2006, Manny said the first wave of UWB products “will likely be set-tops and DVRs.” As for Wi-Fi, cable ops are still up in the air. Time Warner Cable spokesman Keith Cocozza said the MSO “offers Wi-Fi formally in half of [its] 34 divisions around the country,” but could not speak to future developments. Comcast, another industry leader, has made little noise about Wi-Fi since announcing a 802.11b development pact with Intel in 2001. The uncertainty over how this will all play out is perhaps best illustrated by two adjacent signs on the McDonald’s window: “One hour of free wireless,” and “No loitering.”

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