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Raft of new wireless technologies could lead to airwave gridlock

By Jared Sandberg

For months it was driving Howard McCollister nuts. The 50-year-old surgeon from Deerwood, Minn., had equipped his kids’ Apple laptops with wireless antennas called the AirPort. The doodads allow the McCollister siblings to connect to the Internet without a direct phone line.

Instead, they receive their Internet link through the air, via a small radio transmitter connected to a phone. The setup ended arguments “about one or the other hogging the phone line,” says Dr. McCollister.

But the wireless link kept blinking out, and Dr. McCollister couldn’t figure out what was wrong. He upgraded the software and pored over online discussion groups without any luck.

Finally, a friend who is an Apple dealer asked if he had a cordless phone that transmits its calls at 2.4 gigahertz and Dr. McCollister had his breakthrough. Two months earlier, he had bought two of the phones for his kids. It turned out they were creating interference that scotched the computer connection. Confirming the problem, he found a document on Apple’s Web site that lists things ranging from 2.4 gigahertz phones to microwave ovens as potential sources of interference.

Brace for mid-air collisions. The high-tech industry is hyping a raft of new technologies that use the airwaves to link personal computers, Palm hand-held devices and other gadgets to the Internet and corporate networks, as well as to each other. Executives say such wireless connections herald a new era of anywhere, anytime computing.

But these technologies communicate in the increasingly crowded 2.4 gigahertz band of the radio spectrum, potentially clogging the airwaves like planes over LaGuardia. Developed to liberate people from their desks and the linguine knots of cables emerging from their computers, some wireless technologies could create airborne entanglements that increase the complexity of computing, instead of reducing it.

“New technology is always more complex at first,” says Forrester Research analyst Galen Schreck. “We promise something that is going to be magical, something that will configure itself, but that doesn’t emerge until later into the game.”

About Fabrizio Pilato

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