Wireless Future

Corrections or additions?

This article was prepared by Kathleen McGinn Spring for the March

13, 2005 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Geeks on Call for Wireless Dummies

Who you gonna call when your home computer makes a noise like an

airplane with a dying engine; when your monitor flashes "save all

data! shut down imminent!"; when your almost-complete thesis/year-end

report/novel suddenly disappears? One choice is Geeks on Call, a

six-year-old Norfolk, Virginia-based company born of the frustration

of masses of folks with an intense love-hate relationship with their

computers.

As the owner of two Geeks on Call franchises, Michael Petriello has

heard the cries of any number of crazed, desperate computer owners

with buggy machines on their hands. But now he is hearing a new cry, a

more pleasant call. Long dependent on their computers for everything

from work assignments to late-night games of solitaire, more of his

customers are seeking to break free of their cords and cables, and are

longing to surf from their couches, and indeed even from their patios

and pool decks.

"We’re getting a lot more calls for wireless," says Petriello, based

in Manasquan. "We’re installing three or four systems a week." So

popular is the new computing option that a poll of several hundred

Mercer Chamber members at a recent meeting determined that a talk on

wireless was at the top of their wish lists. In response, the Chamber

is holding a meeting on "Wireless Computer Technology: Selection,

Services, and Security" on Wednesday, March 23, at 7:30 a.m. at the

Mercer County Community College Conference Center. Cost: $30. Call

609-406-1665. In addition to Petriello, speakers include Arthur Rosner

of Strand Management Solutions and George Ascione of Lighthouse

Hosting.

Petriello, who can often be found enjoying the wireless connection at

the Starbucks in the Mercer Mall, spent 25 years with Verizon, and the

many Bell companies that preceded it. A graduate of Rutgers’

engineering program (Class of 1975), he holds a master’s degree in

telecom management from Stevens Institute. He went to work for New

Jersey Bell in 1978 as an engineer "in charge of cables and manholes

and pole lines" and worked through some 20 jobs in 25 years, ending up

as executive director of enterprise marketing for Verizon. After a

Bell career that took him to Freehold, Hopewell, Newark, Red Bank,

Washington, D.C., and Brussels, he, "along with 23,000 other people"

took a buy-out in 2003 after 25 years with the company.

"I loved it," he says of his Bell career, which followed a roller

coaster of divestiture, merger, restructuring, reconfiguration, and

rightsizing. "I felt that I was living history."

But when the ride was over, he was sure that he had had enough. "I

went skiing in Germany and in Switzerland, and thought about what I

wanted to do next," he says. He knew he wanted to do something of his

own, but he also knew that 25 years within Ma Bell’s house had bred a

need for a degree of structure. A franchise, he quickly decided, was

the answer.

He chose Geeks on Call, he says, at least in part because of its

growth potential. "When I bought my first franchise in May of 2004,

there were 150 franchises," he says. "In the next eight or nine months

it doubled in size." Another attraction for the former marketing

executive is that the young company is "marketing driven."

Geeks on Call keeps headquarters in close contact with each of its

franchises. Calls for service go directly to headquarters

(800-905-GEEK) and from there are routed by zip code. Petriello’s

office is in Manasquan, but his franchises cover 15 zip codes in

central New Jersey. Towns in his territory include Hamilton, Trenton,

Ewing, and Hopewell.

Petriello makes no service calls himself, but rather relies on two

employees who travel around in PT Cruisers fully loaded with all the

software and hardware they need to remedy most problems – and to set

up networks and wireless connections. All Geeks’ employees have at

least an A+ certification from CompTIAA. New Jersey Institute of

Technology, which offers a class that prepares individuals for the

certification, describes it as "a widely-regarded, vendor neutral

certification that serves as an entry-level credential to a career in

computer technology." In addition, the technicians have to pass a

Geeks on Call test.

Geeks on Call does everything from setting up new computers to purging

machines of spyware to networking multiple machines. It serves both

residential and small business customers. Petriello points out,

however, that the line often blurs.

"There are people operating their own businesses out of their houses,"

he says. "Sometimes we get to a house and find eight or ten servers in

the basement." Then there are the people who are employed by another

company, but who do their work at home. For these customers, he says,

the need to get a computer fixed fast is vital. "It’s not just that

the kids can’t play games," he says. "It’s that they can’t connect to

the office. Can’t send E-mail. Can’t work."

Geeks strives to answer all calls within 24 hours and often is able to

provide same day service. A residential call to network the family’s

computers and establish wireless connections could cost about $145,

says Petriello, but he cautions that every situation is different. It

appears that there is substantial potential for "up selling." He

mentions that if a technician finds that a computer is full of spyware

or adware, he will offer to purge it. If the computer is badly out of

date, he will offer to upgrade it.

Standalone computer repair shops and big box electronics stores are

set up to perform repairs, but often they don’t offer house calls.

Computer manufacturers, in general, have cut back on warranty terms.

While consumers are driven mad by 72-minute hold times to speak to a

second-tier tech, small businesses have their own issues. Most of its

business customers are too small to have on-site IT support. Petriello

is hesitant to quote rates for service contracts, because situations

vary so widely.

Meanwhile, whether it’s a one-person household or a 10-person PR firm,

everyone is now lusting for wireless. Petriello provides information

on some of the basics:

Go for a g. There have been several generations of wireless cards

already. The state-of-the-art card now is an 802.11g. With that card,

Petriello promises, universal access to wireless is as close to a

given as is possible in the fickle world of computing. Next down on

the chain is the 802.11b. That card will often pull in the wireless

signals, too, and in fact is the preferred way to access the Internet

wirelessly at a number of hot spots, but is not as fast as the g. The

b operates at 11 megabits per second, while the speedier g operates at

54 megabits a second, says Petriello. There is also an 802.11a. Don’t

buy this one. It can be had at terrifically low prices, but will not

pull in a signal in public wireless (WiFi) hot spots.

Petriello shudders when asked just how long he thinks that 802.11g

will continue to reign as the WiFi standard. "Well," he says, "there

is talk of an ‘N’ and there is a ‘pre-N’ out there." Vendors will get

together on the next standard, and inevitably there will be one. But

for the foreseeable future, in his opinion, the 802.11g will hold

sway.

Many new laptops come with wireless cards built in, but most laptops

can be easily upgraded to receive wireless signals. A wireless card,

which plugs into the side of most laptops, costs less than $50.

Choose XP. With Windows XP, going wireless at home or on the road is a

snap. Just turn on the laptop, and it will detect the signal. Surfing

follows painlessly. Windows 2000 machines may have a harder time

connecting at Barnes & Noble or the airport. It may be necessary to

download some patches and fiddle with some settings, but these

computers generally can make the leap to wireless. As for Windows 95

computers, "forget about it," says Petriello. There will be no easy

entry into wireless for these antiques.

Apple owners need not fear being left out. Going wireless at home or

on the road with a Mac is not a problem.

Open your wallet. Going wireless at home involves the purchase of some

hardware. But there is good news on this front. While it used to be

necessary to buy a variety of devices to network computers with each

other and with peripherals and more devices to take the system

wireless, Petriello says that all of these functions can now be had in

a single device, cutting down on cables, wires – and expenses.

An ad for the Linksys 802.11g Cable/DSL Wireless Router with 4-Port

Switch ($74.99), for example, states that it is "really three devices

in one box. It’s a Wireless Access Point and a built-in 4-port

full-duplex 10/100 Switch to connect your wires Ethernet devices.

Connect four PCs directly, or daisy-chain out to more hubs and

switches to create as big a network as you need. Finally, the Router

function ties it all together and lets your whole network share a

high-speed cable of DSL Internet connection."

Find wireless on the road. Each WiFi hot spot provides access to the

‘Net on its own terms. Some hot spots are free. They include the

Princeton Public Library, all branches of the Mercer County Library

system except Hollowbrook, the Princeton University Store, and all

Panera restaurants.

Also on the free list is Princeton University. The university has

Temporary Visitor Wireless Network Access it calls "tuna." Visitors to

the campus are welcome to use it for up to seven days a month from a

number of locations (there is a map at www.net.princeton.edu/TVWNA). A

popular PU hot spot is the Frist campus center. The password, which

changes at least three times a year and is available on the website,

is currently 1122334455.

Others area hot spots are linked up with telecom providers, which

charge a fee. "My Starbucks uses T-Mobile," says Petriello, "but I’m

not sure that all Starbucks do." When he logs on, his account is

charged. He chooses T-Mobile because it is the provider that services

the hot spots he frequents most. In addition to Starbucks, T-Mobile

powers wireless connections at area Borders book stores. T-Mobile’s

rates for Internet on the go are $6 an hour, $9.99 a day, or $29.99 a

month.

He knows of a number of Manhattan hot spots that use Verizon instead.

These Internet outposts are free for those who subscribe to Verizon

DSL at home.

Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble has linked up with SBC Communications, which

charges $3.95 for a two-hour session or $19.95 a month, based on a

one-year contract, for unlimited access at any of its 5,000 locations.

That sounds like a lot of places, but in addition to the Barnes &

Noble stores, the only other nearby SBC hot spot is at the Doral

Forrestal hotel. Many of the 5,000 locations are McDonalds’

restaurants. For those who subscribe to SBC Yahoo DSL at home, though,

the price can be right – just $1.99 a year.

The Bucks County Coffee Company’s Palmer Square location is going to

add wireless "very soon," according to a spokesperson, who is not yet

sure what provider it is going to use.

Be safe. The totally tech deficient might want to call on Geeks on

Call or a similar outfit to set up wireless at home if they cannot

lure a grandchild or neighborhood teenager in with promises of cash

and cookies. The moderately tech astute should be able to perform the

task themselves, says Petriello. But he does have a caveat.

On any number of calls his technicians find wireless set-ups that

leave homeowners totally vulnerable. "We open their systems and we can

see into the house across the street, the house on the right, and the

house on the left," he says. Any of these neighbors – as well as

anyone parking a car within 150 feet of the house – can tap into the

home’s Internet service.

Generally when this happens the neighbor just helps himself to a free

ride on the Internet. Many people think "who cares," says Petriello,

but he points out that any surfing these interlopers do shows up as

being on the account of the household that is paying for the service.

A worse case scenario could involve child porn or terroristic threats

or mass spamming attacks. Beyond these nightmares, it is possible that

a hacker could read E-mail or uncover personal information and credit

card numbers – easily.

Protection is not all that difficult, and involves carefully

configuring security settings. Make sure to take the time to do this,

Petriello strongly advises.

Wireless, with its competing standards and dueling service providers,

is still in its infancy. Petriello talks about entire cities –

Philadelphia, for one – gearing up to become totally wireless.

It’s the future, and it’s here today, as close as Starbucks, Barnes &

Noble, the Princeton Public Library, Panera – or that nice sunny spot

in the back garden.

Top Of Page
Wireless Future

While the Mercer chamber’s workshop will explain, to the non-computer

savvy, the current possibilities for wireless computing, the Princeton

chapter of ACM/IEEE will look into the future of wireless.

NJIT’s Christian Borcea will talk on Outdoor Distributed Computing,

describing prototypes of wireless communication over PDAs and Smart

Phones that have been tested in real-life traffic scenarios with

short-range wireless communication. Set for Thursday, March 17, at

7:30 p.m. at Sarnoff, the meeting is free and refreshments will be

served. Call 908-582-7086.


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