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Strom: Desperately Seeking Wireless

So I am on the road, covering the RSA conference at the Moscone this week, and I am awash in wireless connection options. The only problem is, none of them work everywhere that I am, and all require some effort to enter the correct information. I am beginning to think that this wireless stuff is over-rated, and maybe that ole cat 5 isn't so bad after all.

This is really the first time that I have used my new laptop (which is from Gigabyte and quite nice and light) while on the road and under battle conditions - namely, reporting a big trade show. (As a side note, it seems as if there are almost as many attendees at the RSA show as were at last year's Interop. But we won't get into that right now.) Plus, having it in such a wireless-intensive place such as downtown San Francisco is a good test for its roaming features. My trouble is that I know just enough to be dangerous, and also fascinated (or distracted) by the way that wireless has been implemented both on my Centrino laptop and where I can find it in and around the convention center, and in my hotel a few blocks away.

So, the good news: I can get my fix of Internet access pretty much wherever I might be here. There are plenty of choices. But with those choices comes the possibility of confusion. First off, do I use Windows to set up my wireless settings, or Intel's ProSet software application? For most purposes, the Windows setup screens do the job: quick, easy, and without a lot of clicking around on various options while I am under the stress of having to connect and file a story in a few minutes during the show or grab some emails. It works well for open networks and for the semi-open networks (the ones using WPA encryption). As long as you get a decent enough signal, you are fine. What it doesn't do is display your signal strength very well so you can move about where you are to optimize your bandwidth.

The Intel configuration software (since I have an Intel radio in my laptop, which is what I am using) has more bells and whistles and is also somewhat confusing to deal with. It isn't as confusing as the special wireless software that I have used from Belkin and D-Link, just to name some others. When I was at the RSA conference, they had setup a protected network for the attendees to use. The only problem was that it required a 12-step procedure to connect securely. I was able to complete the procedure without having to attend a 12-step program or go to the wireless help desk in the front hall, I am proud to say. And for those of you that think that attendees at a security conference should be able to use the triple-encrypted multiple protocol security procedures, there was usually a crowd three or four deep at the help desk with laptops in tow, waiting to get guidance on how they too could become connected.

But I digress. The triple-encrypted network was only available on one side of the Moscone. The rest of the building has its own for-pay Wayport system, which would come up when I tried to connect in these areas. I soon figured out where the wired connections were, or where the freebie wireless hot spots were (it was pretty easy, all you had to do was look where clumps of people were hammering away on their laptops).

Back at the hotel, my room got service from quite a few access points, but the open ones were too weak for me to pull in, despite walking around my room trying to find the best reception. (And my room wasn't all that big either.) The hotel also had their own wireless network, but they wanted an obnoxious amount of dough to connect for a night. The solution was to go down to the lobby, where I could pick up a signal from someone else's network. Too bad the receptionist had put in some CD that wasn't to my taste - but these are the sacrifices that road warriors of the 21st century have to deal with. If you want quiet, solitude, and a real desk, you have to put up with the dead zone in terms of wireless.

Back in town this morning, I was locked out of my office but luckily was able to grab another network from the building and finish this column.

So I am thinking: my how times have changed. When I first started traveling with a laptop back in the Jurassic period, it was all goodness if a hotel had an RJ11 jack that I could plug a modem into without having to unscrew the wall plates and take apart the wiring. Then we got used to in-room Ethernet and I can't even tell you how to use a modem anymore, (Remember those great SLIP vs. PPP debates? Finding Compuserve access numbers? Compuserve?) So I guess we are all better off. But managing wireless connections is quickly becoming more time consuming than I thought.