Is it too much to ask?

I want seamless, high-speed wireless Internet access to my laptop anywhere, anytime, for a reasonable flat rate. "Seamless" as in at home or in South Dakota's Black Hills or on Mount Kilimanjaro. "Reasonable" is less than $50 a month -- $50 for combined home and travel access.

Dream on you say, and rightly so. There is no current for-pay service that combines both home and travel wireless high-speed Web service (though there are certain pirating options, I'm told). Sure, you could plug the old laptop at home or on the road into a cell phone for Web access at average speeds of 40 to 60 kbps, currently available from Verizon (NYSE: VZ) or Sprint PCS (NYSE: PCS), but why would you do this at home and at cell phone rates? So, if you're going to have to pay for an extra service anyway, you might consider another that's quite intriguing. Access via a Wi-Fi 802.11b network is as fast as the broadband network to which it connects, though it currently offers less coverage than wireless phone networks.

What is Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi stands for wireless fidelity, which helps make those of us raised on Hi-Fi feel right at home. All over the U.S. (and probably elsewhere), inexpensive Wi-Fi connections are sprouting everywhere -- from a few to a hundred feet indoors and farther outdoors. These allow wireless connections to high-speed, a.k.a. broadband, networks, usually brought to the site via cable or DSL, or a T1 (or higher) line. With an enabled laptop, users access the Web freely -- sometimes without paying -- anywhere there's a connection (hot spot). You can find them in most major airports, Starbucks coffee shops, many hotel chains, etc.

In the know
The technology today primarily uses a standard known as 802.11b. Technically, it is IEEE standard 802.11b, meaning that it's agreed upon by the Institute of Electrical Electronics Engineers, a non-profit professional association with 377,000 members in 150 countries. The organization's standards association promulgates technical standards to facilitate technology and product development in a world of techno-Tower of Babel. One IEEE committee is devoted entirely to "802" series standards, those affecting local area networks (LANs) and metropolitan area networks (MANs, not men). This includes wireless LANs.

If I had a cushy travel budget or lived nearby, I'd attend the 802.11 Planet Fall Conference & Expo, on Dec. 3-5 in Santa Clara, Calif., to learn the latest on Wi-Fi in the U.S. While it will be a little on the techie side, investors might get some thrill picking up the buzz. Among others, Sky Dayton, founder and CEO of privately held Boingo Wireless, will speak.

Boingo drums
Boingo has been on my mind since I almost wrote this column last April, when a spate of news articles detailed efforts to use wireless technology to share -- or steal, to some -- high-speed broadband Web access. Boingo is not one of those efforts. It partners with existing networks to offer a larger service area to customers.

I decided to call up Boingo and talk to a real person. Lucky me, I got to speak immediately to Christian Gunning, director of product management, and asked him first about finances. Boingo closed its $15 million round A financing in 2001, with a smaller follow-on earlier this year, and Gunning says that the company is judicious in its cash burn and can last almost two years without additional funding.

Competitors? Gunning said that Boingo doesn't really have any, though the media tends to put them up against a company called iPass. In his view, "I-Pass technically competes with our partner Fiberlink for secure remote access. We provide a Wi-Fi  extension to Fiberlink service."

When asked whether the wireless service providers and their 2.5G or 3G services compete, Gunning said he could see them "ultimately get rolled into our service," giving customers connectivity wherever they go. Boingo is "in active conversations" with all of them. I've read several comments from large wireless service company execs this year who confirm this.

They maintain publicly that partnership with Wi-Fi is their vision of the future. That makes a lot of sense, not the least because the pro-competition, anti-regulatory sentiment at the Federal Communications Commission suggests that it won't interfere on spectrum issues. But that's another column for another day.

So, perhaps in a few years, wireless service by phone will be faster and combined with Wi-Fi, and I could then have what I want. But at the right price?

Consider what it costs today to beat Boingo's drum. The company's website says it currently has over 800 hot spots in the U.S. that customers can access through three subscription options: $49.95 for unlimited monthly usage, $24.95 per month for 10 24-hour connect periods (plus $4.95 a month for extras), and $7.95 for two days (plus $7.95 per day after that). You can connect as many times in a 24-hour period as you like. 

Not too bad, but add these rates to the following typical list for a broadband user:

Item                             Monthly Cost     
Gas, electric, and water $150.00 (and up!) Landline phone + long distance 75.00 Cell phone 39.95 Cable TV: basic 12.95
anything good 34.95+ Cable modem or DSL service 39.95 Dial-up ISP (for travel access) 9.95-24.95
Health club 29.95
Membership in TMF Community: Priceless!
(You knew I'd say that...)

Let's say you want the wireless stuff for the road. Even with Boingo, you still need to pay for a dial-up Internet service provider, or for the 2.5G service from a wireless ISP, because Boingo's coverage is limited. If your company picks up the tab, no problem, which is one reason why Boingo currently targets the business user.

But for the traveler whose company won't pay, or who wants the service for pleasure travel, the other two subscription options might work. After all, $7.95 for two days (with $7.95 a day after that) isn't that bad for a weekend trip a month.

All of this stuff simply must become cheaper, and odds are that it will -- someday. I repeat: I want wireless for under $50 everywhere -- both at home and on the road, for the same price. Oh, and I'd like to cover the household, too, making it $50 total for the two of us. I'll bet you it'll be here within five years. What do you think? Tell us on our Wireless & Mobile Devices discussion board.

Not adding cash
On an entirely separate note, there was no quarterly cash infusion for Rule Breaker in October. We started adding cash in July 2001, with the stated intent to do so quarterly, and because new cash would force us to invest periodically as most people do. We've been questioning this thinking for some months but haven't reached a definite conclusion. For now, we have plenty o' cash in S&P 500 Depositary Receipts (AMEX: SPY), and more available if we covered our Sirius Satellite Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI) short. We're not convinced there are better places for the money. Yet.

Below you'll find updated portfolio returns, showing that the port is ahead of both the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq for the year. Have a most Foolish week!         

Tom Jacobs (TMF Tom9) owned a wireless phone once, but refuses to do so again until service improves and costs decrease. He is not a Luddite, but he does star on the team of Motley Fool analysts who delight investors every month in The Motley Fool Select. Enjoy your 30-day free trial today! At press time, he owned no shares of companies mentioned here.  To see his stock holdings, view his profile, and check out The Motley Fool's disclosure policy.

Rule Breaker Portfolio Returns as of 11/18/02 Market Close:

            RB        S&P     S&P 500
            Port      500      DA*    Nasdaq
Week       4.77%      2.76%    --       5.65%
Month      6.63%      1.65%    --       4.81%
Year -20.91% -21.58% -- -28.54%
using IRR** since 8/4/94 21.45% 8.48% 11.35% 8.28%

*Dividends added. Or, danger ahead. Whatever.

**Compound Annual Growth Rate using Internal Rate of Return. This performance measure is more meaningful than total return because we began adding cash occasionally in July 2001. In a total return calculation, or ((Current Value - All Cash Deposited)/All Cash Deposited), cash added would show up as returns. And that wouldn't be cricket!