DATELINE: PORTSMOUTH

A closer look at Wi-Fi (Can it bring us together?)
By Lars Trodson / Portsmouth Times 6/10/04


When I was a kid there a cheap ad on one of the UHF stations we used to watch late at night, it might have been Channel 56 out of Boston, and it touted a course in computer repair. We used to laugh at that. Who would take a computer repair course? What kind of idiot would waste his money on that?

In college, the computer lab was hidden away in some little closet of a room and it had, as I recall, one computer. It was a big boxy thing, with a gray screen as big as TV set, and I honestly don't recall ever seeing anybody ever in there. This was a little more than 25 years ago.

Flash forward to today: I'm sitting in the Portsmouth Brewery with Steve Noel, the affable and knowledgeable co-founder of Seacoast Wireless. He's showing me his cell phone, and he's downloading Web sites and accessing his emails and he even played a video by the Black Eyed Peas that he had downloaded. It was an amazing piece of technology. I remembered, with a laugh, the scene in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey where one of the characters makes a videophone call back to Earth.

   I wondered how many technological dreams have been realized and surpassed.

   Steve had been kind enough to talk to me about the new technology. I had written a rant about the new free Wi-Fi "hot spot" now available at Prescott Park, and how I thought it was a terrible idea, and asked one of the sponsors or promoters of this technological advancement to debate me on why this was a good idea.

   I also wanted to know why we weren't allowed to have a public debate about it, as we would have if there had been an idea to place a new sculpture at Prescott Park, or to put on free concerts.

   No one was forthcoming, sadly, but Steve Noel offered to give me a tutorial about Wi-Fi and, in the spirit of a free and honest debate, perhaps sway me ever so gently over to the wireless-fidelity side of the tracks.

   Steve and his partner Jason Wall started Seacoast Wireless a year ago with the idea of getting wireless hot-spots into some downtown restaurants. (Seacoast Wireless was not part of the Prescott Park development.) According to Steve, he and Jason approached four different venues and all four signed onto the Wi-Fi idea. Wi-Fi is available now at the Portsmouth Brewery, Muddy River, Redhook Brewery and Bagel Works through Seacoast Wireless.

   Noel, who is 32, became enamored of the technology early in life. He grew up in Somersworth, and encountered his first computer in grade school there.

   "We would play games on it," Steve said. "There were no networks, no wireless, definitely no Internet."

   He got his first computer job while still in high school building and repairing computers at a company called The Computer Lab in Dover. He operated a small primitive email server business - the popular term was "store and forward" - and he's been working with the ever-evolving computer and its attendant technology ever since.

   I asked specifically about Wi-Fi, and what it was.

   "It's kind of a made-up name," Noel said of Wi-Fi - which stands for "wireless fidelity." It's a takeoff on the more familiar hi-fi moniker of the 1960s, when "high-fidelity" stereos, most of them encased in huge paneled consoles, were all the rage for middle American families.

      The term "Wi-Fi" was dreamed up by a marketing team in California to brand this specific kind of technology. It's like Kleenex or Jell-O - specific brand names that have now become almost universal terms for a certain kind of item. The hope is, I suppose, to have all wireless technology be referred to as Wi-Fi.

   The marketers also have a logo "they're trying to make ubiquitous," said Noel. He showed it to me. I didn't think it was very attractive, but Noel pointed out its design was almost beside the point. Everybody now recognizes it. A computer with Wi-Fi technology built into it will display this Wi-Fi logo.

   At the Portsmouth Brewery, there was a small disc - it looked like a miniature satellite dish - mounted right next to the TV over the bar. You could hardly see it. This was the Apple Airport model and from that a Wi-Fi signal is beamed out at all times. This is the base station, or the WAP (wireless access port).

   Somewhere at Prescott Park there must be a little disk such as this.

   Customers of Seacoast Wireless can pay a daily or monthly fee to access the Internet at the wireless hot spot. That's how the company makes its money. While we were sitting at the booth on a very, very busy Monday evening at the Brewery, Steve logged onto the Internet on his laptop.

   The signal from the WAP has about a 300-foot radius. If you've paid your monthly fee you can open up your computer and it will tap into the signal and - wireless - you're good to surf the Web. (The "hot spot" at Prescott Park, by the way, is free. This is an idea that's popping up all over the country.)

   I asked why all this accessibility was a good thing.

   Here is where Steve and I diverged a little bit. He is clearly enamored and passionate about the technology, and he iterated its benefits - almost all of which made good common sense. But the first thing he said was this:

   "If I want to go outside and sit on a lawn chair and take my email outside, I can," he said. "It's a cool thing and I can also be productive."

   He also said that Wi-Fi allows him to watch TV, talk to his girlfriend and may be even eat dinner at the same time.

   "But you're not engaged in any one thing," I said.

   "I wouldn't have a deep philosophical conversation about God, the universe and everything," he said, "But I can have a conversation with my girlfriend about what her day was like."

   I asked if we were headed toward a wireless world.

   "I think so," said Noel. As an instance, he said that text messaging - long popular in other parts of the world - was just now beginning to really catch on here. MSS - short messaging service - is going to replace computer to computer emailing and, to do it, you don't even have to know how to spell. The kids in Japan and other places have created their own shorthand to get a message across - like the quick "ICUL8R" - that doesn't need embellishment or the complicated rules of grammar.

   Noel's Motorola cell phone also came equipped with GPRS - General Packet Radio Service - which is like a modem over the cell phone. He accessed the Web site of a consulting business he works at on the side.

   Even in just a year or two the WAPs with the 300-feet radii will be outmoded. Distances will soon be a couple of miles or more.

   "The big question will be how do you pay for it," said Noel.

   I guessed that Wi-Fi would follow either the models of telephone networks, where WAPs (or the succeeding technology) are set up and you just pick and choose the company you want to deal with and pay them a monthly fee. Or it will be like cable TV, where markets are divvied up without competition.

   Either way, these little Wi-Fi hot spots aren't going to last much longer in their current configuration.

   We talked quite some time about the benefits and drawbacks to modern technology, and I have to admit, Noel made a lot of sense.

   "A lot of people who are against technology see it as a way for people to become loners," he said. There isn't anything that can't be done now over the Internet or the phone - whether it is accessing sexual fantasies or ordering groceries. "But one of the things that has happened is that all these communities have popped up."

   And he's right about that. "It's no longer just Portsmouth people talking to Portsmouth people," he said. People on different continents all over the world regularly communicate about subjects of common interest. Medical information can be exchanged and researched, as an example.

   "That was one of the surprising things that came out of the technology," Noel said. "People are talking more."

   I said that it was my guess that younger people, who have hundreds of email addresses in their books, and can instant message each other all the time, will be much better at keeping in touch with one another as they got older. They'll have both the technology and the practice.

   My generation, which has had to sort of grow along with the technology and get used to it - we lived a good 20 years without any of this stuff -  isn't quite so good at that. So that is a hopeful thing.

   I found Steve Noel to have a vision that was rooted firmly in the technological aspects of things, yes, but he also saw the human side of it. I was happy that he had emailed me about it. I also want to quickly add that if there is anything factually wrong about what we've talked about here it is undoubtedly my fault and not Steve's - don't blame him.

   We ended on this note: As people communicate for long periods of time, "you sort of want to put a living breathing face to that person. It's called F2F - a face to face." He was making the argument that the technology may even spurn us on to become more social.    "At the end of the day," he said. "We're human beings."
 

 

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