Wireless Internet access has a variety of uses for small and mid-size businesses. Sometimes, it's a way of attracting customers, as many coffee shops, boutiques, restaurants, and even doctor’s offices have offered free access as an additional benefit. Other types of firms may opt to use wireless Internet internally so that employees can access the corporate local area network from wherever they are in the building.

Either way, if businesses are talking about wireless Internet access, chances are they’re talking about Wi-Fi -- pronounced “why-fy” and short for “wireless fidelity.”

Originally developed for mobile computer users, Wi-Fi has become the networking standard of choice for small businesses and home offices because it offers broadband-speed access without cables. Uses for Wi-Fi, which also is known by its technical standard name of 802.11, are expanding rapidly. So far it’s being used for Internet-based telephony and  connectivity between electronic devices such as digital cameras and TVs; a new type of WiFi is even being developed to knit moving cars together into rolling information networks.

How Wi-Fi works

Most references to 802.11 or Wi-Fi are about “hotspots,” public locations where laptops and handheld computers can pick up a radio signal to connect to the Internet. Hotspots center around “access points,” routers that connect to the Internet via an Ethernet cable and then serve up a wireless signal containing the broadband feed.

Hotspots can cover anything from one room to several square miles, depending on the number of access points and the type of equipment being used. Some hotspots are actually “wireless mesh networks,” a series of host access points, or nodes, working together to provide seamless coverage throughout a region. This is generally how municipal wireless networks provide city-wide wireless Internet access.

Most laptops manufactured today come with Wi-Fi cards already built in. Once the laptop’s Wi-Fi capability is turned on, software usually can detect an access point’s SSID -- or "service set identifier" -- automatically, allowing the laptop to connect to the signal without the user having to intervene.

Security concerns for small business

Security-conscious users should think twice about how and when to use such automated connections. Computers attached to such public networks can be easy prey for hackers. In addition, a laptop that allows peer-to-peer connectivity, a type of connection in which devices use Wi-Fi to communicate with one another, essentially invites other nearby laptop users to poke around inside a neighbor’s machine.

”It is important for small businesses to adequately protect the data residing on their PCs while using Wi-Fi, in the event that their system is hacked, lost, or stolen,” warns Howard DuLany, manager of wireless marketing at laptop maker Lenovo. While today's Wi-Fi specifications offer some security, hard drive encryption and biometric tools such as fingerprint readers help to ensure proprietary data is not stolen and unauthorized access to documents is restricted. “These tools may seem like science-fiction,” DuLany says, “but are now incredibly common and can be purchased with your PC or as an option at minimal additional cost.”

Wi-Fi is expected to expand rapidly over the next few years as manufacturers begin releasing mobile phones that work on both traditional cellular networks and by accessing Wi-Fi hotspots. In-Stat, a Scottsdale, Ariz., research firm, forecasts that more than 200 million Wi-Fi-enabled mobile handsets will have shipped by 2010.

In addition, ABI Research of New York reports that Wi-Fi is becoming a key enabler for the delivery and redistribution of entertainment content, which is used in some types of businesses. ABI analysts forecast that the total number of Wi-Fi-enabled consumer electronics devices will grow from 40 million shipped in 2006 to 249 million in 2011.

"From the enormous interest in online gaming to the rapid emergence of new Internet distribution channels for top-tier movie and TV content, the need for connectivity in mainstream consumer electronics is growing rapidly," says ABI research director Michael Wolf. That impacts businesses more and more because these consumer electronic devices -- iPods, cell phones, laptops, etc. -- are increasingly making their way into the business environment.