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Filling in the Blanks in the Hot-Spot Map
Jan 16, 2005


The New York Times

WHILE business travelers have quickly become fans of wireless Internet services, leisure travelers have largely ignored the trend and for good reason, since so-called wireless Internet connection locations, known as "hot spots," can be both hard to find and expensive.
That's changing quickly, though, as hotels, rental car companies and travel suppliers of all types have discovered that it costs relatively little to offer wireless Internet services to customers. While travel companies have done little to eliminate the inconsistent array of pricing options available, they are at least making it less painful to log on when you do stumble on a hot spot.

The latest to jump on the wireless bandwagon are Hertz and Avis, which have both initiated programs to let their customers surf in or near the rental car lobbies.

Starting this month, Hertz will offer wireless Internet service at Hertz Gold airport locations in the United States; by the end of March, about 50 should be in operation. As is the case at most Internet hot spots, laptop computer users with a wireless card or a built-in wireless chip simply turn on their computers, and an on-screen icon prompts them to log in to the network.

Hertz's connections are offered through Wayport, which also operates the wireless networks of McDonald's. Wayport subscribers pay no additional fee to log on, while nonsubscribers pay $4 to log on to the Hertz hot spots. Users can remain connected all day if they wish.

Hertz's wireless connections are offered via the so-called Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, standard, which operates at speeds that are on par with high-speed Internet connections.

Many experts say there is little demonstrable difference between wireless providers. Those interested in finding Wi-Fi hot spots should consider checking www.jiwire.com before traveling. The site, which underwent an overhaul in July, maps the locations of more than 20,000 publicly available hot spots in the United States, and allows users to search by state, or by the type of place (like cafes, hotels or airports) where they would like to connect.

Toward the bottom of JiWire's home page, the site offers a link to a listing of all free hot spots; over 2,700 of them are in the United States.

Avis has already begun operating the first of what will be 88 airport hot spots at Avis business centers. The first locations are in St. Louis and San Jose and Oakland, Calif., with the remaining ones to follow by midyear, according to a company spokeswoman. Avis centers that are scheduled to have service by the end of this month include those at Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark Liberty airports, and those in Denver, Atlanta, Miami, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, said Susan McGowan, a spokeswoman for Cendant, Avis's parent company.

The service will virtually mirror that of Hertz, with the exception of pricing. Customers pay $8 for a 24-hour hookup. But since the Avis service is provided by SBC Communications, customers can hook up at other SBC hot spots during the rest of the 24-hour period without paying again.

According to Michael Coe, an SBC spokesman, the company has more than 5,000 hot spots in the United States, and has roaming agreements with other Wi-Fi companies at roughly 1,000 other hot spots, situated primarily at hotels and smaller airports.

SBC customers who pay a $2 monthly fee can surf at any SBC hot spot at no additional charge, and for $4 hook into the hot spots of SBC's roaming partners. Many airports charge around $9 for wireless access.

Non-SBC customers can still connect at SBC hot spots by paying $4 for two-hour sessions, and $8 for a 24-hour pass. By next summer, SBC will join Wayport in providing wireless access at 6,000 to 8,000 McDonald's restaurants, Mr. Coe said. Pricing for non-SBC and non-Wayport subscribers will vary, with some restaurants offering free Wi-Fi with food purchases. Currently, 1,500 McDonald's locations offer the service.

Indeed, as the year progresses, travelers will have a much easier time finding hot spots, according to Phillip Redman, an analyst with Gartner Inc., a technology consulting company. Mr. Redman said that by the end of the year, there will be 54,000 hot spots in North America, up from roughly 51,000 in 2004. Not all of these sites are publicly available, however.

"But still, you may be in an airport and pay to connect there, then go to a hotel and pay another service provider, then pay a different provider to connect at a coffee shop," Mr. Redman said. "Who's going to keep shelling out $6 for access?"

Consumers, Mr. Redman said, can look to hotels for the cheapest hot spots in the future. In November, the Wingate Inn chain was offering free Wi-Fi service in common areas of 136 properties, for instance.

"Hotels have issues like the fact that they're not technology providers, so if something goes wrong, access becomes a problem," Mr. Redman said. "At the same time, just like hotels no longer advertise they have air-conditioning or HBO, that's the way it'll be with Wi-Fi. It'll become table stakes."