By Yukari Iwatani

ATLANTA, June 3 (Reuters) - The vice chairman of high-speed wireless Internet firm Cometa Networks on Tuesday said he expects to see the industry exploding by 2008, with more than 50 million users and double that many compatible devices.

"There has never been penetration that has grown that fast in a consumer electronics product except for the handheld 900 megahertz (cordless) phone that all of us have in our homes," said Larry Brilliant at a Wi-Fi session at the Supercomm communications conference here.

Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, is an ultra high-speed wireless Internet connection usually available within a radius of a few hundred feet of a transmitter known as a hot spot or access point.

Laptop computers or other portable devices with Wi-Fi cards tap into the wireless access points, which are physically connected to high-speed networks.

The emerging technology presents a challenge to traditional cellular networks, which are more prevalent but offer Internet access at slower speeds.

Cometa Networks is a partnership of AT&T Corp. International Business Machines Corp. , Intel Corp. . and two venture firms that aims to blanket the country with hot spots and provide ubiquitous Wi-Fi access, which it plans to wholesale to Internet service providers and telecom carriers.

Brilliant, citing industry studies, said he expects 96 percent of corporate laptops and 75 percent of handheld computers to be Wi-Fi compatible by 2007.

Including laptops, handhelds, wearable devices and vehicles such as cars, planes and buses, over 100 million devices will be Wi-Fi enabled by 2008, he said.

Brilliant also said he believes there will be more than 10 million access points by 2008, with about half of those in homes.

Cometa itself plans to install 5,000 hot spots by Feb. 2004 in the top 25 markets and 20,000 hot spots in 50 of the largest U.S. markets by 2005, he said.

Brilliant said the industry is only in its initial phase, and he expects consolidation to occur in the next phase as the technology becomes more mainstream and companies gain a better understanding of how consumers and businesses want to use it.

He also said subscription services would likely be more popular with customers, as opposed to a fee per day, per hour, or per session.

"My expectation is that ... a high percentage of people having once experienced the oxygen of broadband wireless will go everywhere and want it all-you-can-eat, all the time, everywhere, and I don't think any other business model will make it," he said.

Copyright 2003, Reuters News Service

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