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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 March 2006, 20:22 GMT
Wi-fi set to re-wire social rules
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

Wi-fi user in Chicago, AP

With more people now using broadband rather than dial-up and online shopping soaring during the weeks before Christmas, there is no doubt that Britons are big fans of the net.

But most of that home net use occurs when people sit at a computer in a back bedroom, study or lounge.

Increasing numbers of people use wi-fi in their homes so they can tote their laptop around and surf in the kitchen, garden or garage; but still the experience remains stubbornly tethered to a home connection.

This could be about to undergo a big change.

A click away

For some time, many cafes, libraries, shops, stations, airports and restaurants have been installing wi-fi access points so customers can surf the web as they eat, browse or wait.

In some British cities, plans are advancing to set up so many hotspots that entire neighbourhoods become wi-fi enabled. One of the biggest will be in London's Square Mile; it will give more than 350,000 workers always-on access to the net.

At the same time, many local authorities have equipped kiosks with wireless access so their residents can use the web when they are on the High Street.

Nintendo DS Lite game gadget, Reuters
Nintendo DS owners can play each other via wi-fi
These moves to set up wi-fi zones rather than just hotspots look set to let people take their online lives with them wherever they are.

Dr Jo Twist, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, said once the net was ubiquitous like power and water, it had the potential to be "transformative".

The divide that separates people from their online lives will utterly disappear. Instead of leaving behind all those net-based friends and activities when you walk out of your front door, you will be able to take them with you.

The buddies you have on instant message networks, friends and family on e-mail, your eBay auctions, your avatars in online games, the TV shows you have stored on disk, your digital pictures, your blog - everything will be just a click away.

It could also kick off entirely new ways of living, working and playing. For instance, restaurant reviews could be geographically tagged so as soon as you approach a cafe or coffee shop, the views of recent diners could scroll up on your handheld gadget.

Alternative reality games could also become popular. These use actors in real world locations to play out the ultimate interactive experience.

Digital divisions

Key to the transformation, said Dr Twist, would be mobile devices that can use wi-fi. These handsets are only just starting to appear but will likely cram a huge amount of functions into one gadget.

Dr Twist believes the move could start to close the digital divide.

Restaurant interior, AP
Restaurant reviews could be tagged to buildings
"If we have a ubiquitous, cheap or free wireless network that our portable and mobile devices can access, therefore skipping the need for a pricey PC, then that could be incredibly empowering for lots of people," she said.

Such a situation offered all kinds of opportunities for education, training and regeneration.

"It could be really empowering and it could help encourage innovative uses of that network which enliven our public spaces as well as our networks with each other," said Dr Twist.

But, she added, the stumbling block could be the price of access to ubiquitous wireless networks. At the moment, net use is a pastime of the relatively well-off. Without moves to make access more affordable, net use will remain a divisive force.

What also needs to be confronted are the potential privacy and liberty implications of such an always-online world.

"When chips, sensors, and wireless devices mesh together, there may be some unintended consequences," said Dr Twist.

"We have to make sure we think about those, and think about what other exclusions might be brought about by those developments, too."

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