A number of companies are starting to offer wireless mobile Internet access in public places, like airports, hotels and stores. The service can be used by laptops with wireless cards. Here are some of the companies:
AIRWAVE Serves about 75 restaurants, bookstores and cafes in the San Francisco Bay area; a national expansion is planned.
GLOBAL DIGITAL MEDIA Has kiosks and wireless access at Boston and Philadelphia airports; the company plans to be in 35 airports this year.
MOBILESTAR Has about 150 hotel and airport locations, including some terminals at Dallas-Fort Worth airport; all of the Austin, Tex., airport; the American Airlines gates at John F. Kennedy airport; and member lounges in most major airports. It plans service in 5,000 Starbucks by January 2003.
SURF AND SIP Serves about 50 locations in cafes and restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area; a few are in locations like Los Angeles and Kentucky. The company plans to expand to 1,000 locations, including Seattle, Portland and San Diego, by the end of 2001.
TELIA Found at more than 100 hotels, train stations and airports in Sweden, with plans to expand to 19 European airports via SAS airline lounges and more than 300 other locations during 2001.
WAYPORT Serves airports in Seattle-Tacoma, Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth, and 150 hotels. It plans to expand to 550 hotels by June 2001.
IT'S coming soon to an espresso bar near you.
And to the rival coffee shop across the street. Not to mention the coin-operated laundry on the corner, the hotel on the next block and the railroad station across town. The local airport may already have it.
Wireless high-speed Internet access, a longtime dream of the technophile and business traveler, is finally arriving at hundreds of access points in public and private places across the United States. With a laptop computer equipped with a wireless card, anyone within a few hundred feet or so of one of these access points, or hot spots, can tap into a wireless network that is in turn connected to the Internet via a broadband connection. The user can then send e-mail or surf the Web at speeds in the megabit range, usually for a monthly or single-use fee.
By late this year, industry experts say, the hundreds of hot spots will become thousands as service providers and entrepreneurs install the necessary equipment generally, a small transceiver and a broadband connection in all major airport terminals, sports arenas and other business and consumer sites. By sometime next year, one company expects to have access points in 5,000 Starbucks stores.
"Roaming mobile access is becoming a hot item," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, an industry consulting firm. Mr. Bajarin added that the services were particularly attractive to corporations who wanted their traveling staff to be able to keep in touch with the home office more frequently.
Some companies and colleges already have wireless local area networks using the same technology so Internet and intranet access is available from anywhere within an office or around a campus. But the services for mobile professionals tend to be single access points covering one or more stores, for instance, or several meeting rooms in a hotel.
Some of these services may be free, run by volunteers intrigued by the community-building prospects of wireless networking. Volunteer efforts are under way in several cities, including Seattle, Boston and San Francisco.
But most access points are and will be commercial, run by companies that will charge for the services anywhere from a few dollars for a single session to $50 or more per month for unlimited use of the system.
This new wireless access is about "giving you the ability to roam from one network to another and be blissfully ignorant" of the technical intricacies, said Stephen Saltzman, general manager of Intel's wireless local area network division. "It's the kind of thing that's such a fundamental capability that it starts feeding on itself."
It's a vision of a seamless world of wireless access, where the business traveler or cafe habitué can keep in touch via the Web just by walking into the right spot, turning on the laptop and opening a browser. Other services are envisioned as well. The technology has been shown to work even if the laptop is moving, so drive-by access from a car may be possible. Or gas stations could have hot spots and offer "info fueling."
"At the same moment you're filling up your gas tank, why wouldn't you fill up your in-box?" said Mark Goode, chief executive of MobileStar, a leader in the field.
But there are a few potential stumbling blocks to such a vision. One is the prospect of competing standards. Right now, a wireless network protocol with the decidedly unsexy name of I.E.E.E. 802.11b appears to be the leader, in part because a slower version has been widely used in corporations since the early 90's and Apple Computer used it when it began giving its models wireless capability in mid-1999. (Apple gave it a sexier name: AirPort.)
But there are other standards, notably Bluetooth and HomeRF, that could catch on as well. The field could become balkanized, creating both compatibility and signal interference problems for users.
Jeff Groudan, the director for Compaq Computers' business portables group, said that a single user might need two or three wireless standards to stay connected while traveling from place to place.
But even if only one standard prevails, competition among providers may create headaches for consumers. There are only a few truly national providers, with several regional ones that hope to expand, so some consolidation or other shaking out of the industry seems inevitable. And the user who pays a monthly fee for access through one provider may find that the provider's service is available at some airport lounges but not at others where another company's network is used.
Ultimately, roaming agreements like those between cell-phone providers will ease this problem.
"We've got to create an industry and stop spending money trying to kill each other," said Richard Garnick, chief executive of Global Digital Media, a service provider focusing on airport terminals, "because we've got to save some money to gather customers."
One effort to provide wireless access throughout airport terminals (rather than just in a lounge or two) has already foundered. Softnet, the parent company of AerZone, which had contracts to establish access points in San Francisco and Denver's airports, halted AerZone's operations in December, citing cost concerns. One estimate put the cost of putting wireless access throughout a big airport at up to $2 million.
For now, the leading companies using 802.11b, including MobileStar, based in Richardson, Tex., and WayPort, of Austin, Tex., are concentrating on single-access-point service. Both companies have access points in hotel meeting rooms and common areas and in premium membership-based airport lounges.
MobileStar, for example, has about 150 locations, including lounges at all three New York area airports. But the company has big plans, including an agreement with Starbucks to create access points in thousands of Starbucks shops within two years.
WayPort has made inroads into hotel chains, signing agreements with Wyndham and Four Seasons hotels, as well as the Meristar Hotels and Resorts group, which includes some Hilton and Hyatt hotels. In hotels, WayPort runs wired Ethernet access to each room and provides wireless access in the lobby and meeting rooms.
Phil Belanger, vice president for marketing at WayPort, said that his company had installations at about 150 hotels and at the Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth and Seattle-Tacoma airports. The company expects to have 1,200 installations by the end of the year.
Two other companies, AirWave and Surf and Sip, only operate in California, mostly at coffee shops and restaurants. Both companies plan to expand into other states. Surf and Sip turns some of its locations into instant Internet cafes by providing a couple of wireless-enabled laptops that can be rented by the hour and a printer.
Rick Ehrenspiel, president of Surf and Sip, said that he looked for nexus points, like the intersection of Vallejo and Polk Streets in San Francisco's Russian Hill neighborhood. Within a few hundred feet of that spot are four coffee shops: Starbucks, Tully's, Peet's and Royal Grounds. Mr. Ehrenspiel placed his access point in a nearby bar to reach customers in all four shops.
That illustrates another aspect of mobile wireless access. Because the technology is based on radio transmissions (802.11b equipment operates in the 2.4-gigahertz range, the same as some cordless phones) it works through walls. So a Starbucks may be "lit up" by MobileStar, but if a competing company has an access point nearby, it may reach customers at the Starbucks as well.
At some airports, travelers who for whatever reason cannot get into an airline lounge may be able to get wireless access by just lingering outside. During an interview with AirWave executives at Paragon, a San Francisco restaurant that is part of their network, Avery More, the company's chief executive, joined the conversation via instant messaging while he was perched near an American Airlines' Admirals Club lounge at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.
And access may not be limited just to the ground. Tenzing Communications, a firm in competition with Boeing and others to provide in-flight Internet access, announced a test of 802.11b networking in conjunction with Telia, a Swedish telecommunications company, and the SAS airline. The tests are intended to certify the protocol as safe for use, according to Tenzing's marketing director, Laura Alikpala.
"As you're waiting for your flight, you can either work in the lounge or any of the public places in the airport," Ms. Alikpala said, "and then use the same link when you get on the plane to access e-mail or our Web cache."
The equipment to hook a laptop or handheld organizer into a wireless system has become inexpensive and ubiquitous in the last year, said Allan Scott, business developer at Orinoco Systems, a Lucent Technologies division that manufactures wireless LAN, or local area network, cards. Most laptop manufacturers have added or are about to add built-in support for wireless networking, and some laptops already come equipped with wireless LAN cards. Cards can also be purchased for $100 to $150. And some hand-held organizers will soon be able to use the same networks. Xircom is producing a Handspring Visor module, which is scheduled to be available this spring.