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802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n -- 802 say what? If you’re not fluent in high-tech talk, those numbers are just the geek terms for what is otherwise commonly known as Wi-Fi. Sure, you probably toss around the term and use it daily on your computer and phone, but do you really know all the ins and outs of Wi-Fi? Here’s an FYI on the handy wireless technology.


Wi-Fi is a standard-based method for connecting devices, says Kelly Davis- Felner, marketing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a global nonprofit organization responsible for the Wi-Fi trademark and for setting safety and other standards for the Wi-Fi industry.

The current version of Wi-Fi, 802.11n, has a range up to 200 meters, and while it doesn’t replace a cellular connection, it’s complementary in the sense that when you’re stationary, it’s much faster than a cellular connection.

The actual term (and logo) Wi-Fi is a certification mark developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance to indicate that wireless local area network (WLAN) products are based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) 802.11 standards. (There’s where those letters and numbers come in.) If you’re buying any kind of Wi-Fi gear, it’s a good idea to look for that logo -- used to designate products that have passed extensive testing.

Can warming up with a cup of joe at the coffeehouse give Jim (a.k.a. the dude next to you) the ability to peruse your personal computer files? Free Wi-Fi might be a dream come true, but since public hot spots are by nature “open” and unencrypted, there are some things you should know before you connect:

•Make sure that you are connecting to a legitimate hot spot -- those that require a password have more protection than those that do not. Either way, it’s good to verify the connection by asking someone at the establishment what the name of the network is.

•Use a virtual private network, or VPN, which establishes a private connection across the public network. This may be supplied by your employer, or you can purchase one.

•Surfing the web and sending e-mail is fine, but doing something like, say, banking in a public hot spot is not advised.

Q: If I leave my web browser on at home, can drive-by data snatchers steal my personal information?
A: Not likely. “We always tell people to secure their home networks,” Davis-Felner says. “The real risk with having an unsecured network is that people can borrow your Internet access. It is possible that someone can join your network -- see your devices -- but being able to connect to your network and hack into your files is a very farfetched proposition for the typical case.”

Q: I’m feeling a little insecure. How do I know my connection is protected?
A: With Wi-Fi-certified products, you get the stamp of approval that the latest security protection is built in. “The real thing is -- you’ve got to turn it on. Just like a safety belt in a car, it only protects you if you use it,” Davis-Felner says. Most manufacturers ship products with the security turned off, and during the setup process you’re prompted to set it up.

Q: Are fake hot spots for real? Can I get burned?
A: Theoretically, they’re possible, but it’s not a common occurrence. “To set up a fake hot spot where people typically connect is not a trivial thing. You’re [facing] a far greater risk from giving a server at a restaurant your credit card and having him walk away with it than [from] some mastermind sitting with dark glasses looking to steal your data.”


Here are a few great Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets:

Kodak ESP 9 All-in-One printer
$300, www.kodak.com

Zikmu Parrot Wireless Speaker System by Philippe Starck
 $1,600, www.conranusa.com

Intouch IT3500 Wireless Internet Radio Cube
 $120, www.in-touchproducts.com

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-G3 digital camera
$500, www.sonystyle.com