No strings on me 

The idiot’s guide to Arkansas’s (present and future) wireless world

WIRELESS: At Sufficient Grounds.
  • WIRELESS: At Sufficient Grounds.

Walk into a coffee shop in Little Rock these days — not a cuppajoe place, but one of those soy-mocha-latte-skinny coffee shops where you’ll always find a potted plant and a copy of the New York Times — and you’re likely to see something that existed only in science fiction just a few years ago: up to a dozen people, busily clicking away on laptop computers. Wireless laptops.

While those looking to access the Internet were once chained to a bulky box capped with a refrigerator-colored monitor, not to mention a desk, Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) technology (you tap into the web via a radio signal) and the often-free-of-charge Wi-Fi “hotspots” that have sprung up in recent years because of it mean that — for Internet users at least — the world is increasingly a place with no strings attached. While prices for laptop computers, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and wireless Internet cards made them mostly prestige items for hardcore surfers only a few years ago, sinking costs, simplified technologies and a growing number of free and cheap “hotspots” have made Wi-Fi a movement for the masses in the 21st century. In the mid-1990s, when the Wi-Fi boom was just starting, a wireless interface card could cost upwards of $200. Now they’re built into most laptops and many desktops, free of charge.

Innovations like this have been met with a growing worldwide enthusiasm for all things Wi-Fi, one that shows no signs of slowing. According to the 2004 “Face of the Web” poll by Ipsos-Insight, a consulting group that studies technological trends, the number of worldwide Wi-Fi users rose by 29 percent last year, with more than 171 million people accessing the Internet using some form of wireless device — laptop, PDA, mobile phone or other up-to-the-second gadgets not seen this side of a James Bond movie 10 years ago.

As with most things, Arkansas is a bit behind the right and left coasts when it comes to adopting these new technologies, but not that far. The Internet is, as in all things, the last great equalizer — which includes blasting away the fashion lag that leaves us here in flyover country a trend or two behind. Wi-Fi is catching on quickly here, gaining ground on more traditional Internet delivery systems like cable and DSL modems thanks to a few innovative thinkers in our state. They’ll tell you: Wireless technology still can’t put a Dick Tracy-style video communicator on your wrist, but it’s coming — and sooner than you think.

Good-looking, decidedly non-geeky, and with the surefooted faith of a Baptist preacher when it comes to the bright future of wireless technology, Jack Tipshus is with computing services at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Over the last five years, he’s sweated out the details of making most of the campus into one huge Wi-Fi hotspot.

It’s hard to imagine a better guy for the job. Tipshus is a self-confessed gadget junkie, who started carrying his first cell phone in 1988, a black monster the size and weight of a gold brick, which he said probably dealt him some permanent injury from the microwaves cooking off it. Listen to this: He’s had an e-mail address since 1979.

The day we met at UALR so he could walk me through his efforts at plumbing the entire campus for Wi-Fi — library, classrooms, galleries, public spaces, baseball diamond (no kidding), everything — the pockets of his snazzy black suit were alive with what seemed to my pen-and-paper mind like Buck Rogers-grade goodies: PDAs that could make free long-distance phone calls, tiny cell phones that could probably peel an apple in one long, continuous strip if you pushed the right buttons. Five years ago on Valentine’s Day, Tipshus helped usher in the wireless world at UALR, going hot with one of the state’s first Wi-Fi equipped buildings — a system that covered the small common room in the Donaghey Student Union. Though configured for up to 500 users, the system registered 11 that first day. By the end of the year, the system had around 300 registered users. Now, with every inch of public space on the campus covered by Tipshus’ carefully-designed cluster of overlapping Wi-Fi clouds, and high-tech directional antennas that beam Wi-Fi access to far-flung outposts like UALR’s Benton center and Bowen School of Law, the system has around 1,700 registered users, and could support well over 10,000 more without breaking a sweat. On a slow afternoon at the end of the spring semester, a quick check showed 330 users wirelessly online. It’s a number Tipshus said can spike much higher during peak periods. (Not everyone is welcome, however. Citing the need to preserve what he called both a utility and a resource for the UALR community, Tipshus said Wi-Fi access was limited to students, faculty and staff, alumni, and pre-approved guests to the campus.)



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