When I check into a hotel on a business trip, one of the first things I do is plug my laptop into a phone jack to get my E-mail. Too often, the experience goes something like this: On the first attempts, the modem squawks and squeals but doesn't connect with my remote-access server. On the third try, I manage to log in, but my modem chugs along, and if I'm lucky, I'll retrieve all of my messages before I lose the connection.
In my ideal world, my modem is replaced by the same card used to link computers into office networks. I plug into a wall jack and instantly get a high-speed connection to the Internet. The good news is that the technology to do this is here today. Unfortunately, it will be a while before it is widely deployed in hotels, airports, or other road warrior hangouts. And even then, people needing access to servers and post offices protected by company firewalls may be limited to browsing the public Web.
In principle, wiring hotels for the Net is simple. In new construction, it's cheap and easy to pull extra phone cable to rooms and set up a network using inexpensive hubs and routers. Retrofitting older hotels may not be much harder. CAIS Internet in McLean, Va., has a system called OverVoice that lets Internet data share existing voice telephone wiring. The company puts installation cost at about $200 per room.
Hotels aren't in the networking business, so the administration of Internet access will be handled by third parties. ATCOM/INFO (atcominfo. com), working with Microsoft, has developed a system called IPORT that lets an Internet service provider offer hotel access and bill the charges--typically a flat rate of $9 or $10 a day--to a guest's bill or directly to a credit card. A similar system can give fast Net connections, billed by the hour, in airports or other public places. A variation will provide Web and E-mail access through terminals using hotel-room cable TV.
The system is being tested in 11 hotels, with large-scale installations planned later this year. I tried the system at the Washington Marriott and found it very easy to use. More laptops, because they are used for the office as well as on the road, already have the necessary network card. And Denise Durgin, marketing manager for the Washington Marriott, says guest response to the trial has been "overwhelmingly positive." The hotel, she says, will soon begin marketing Internet access as a value-added service that "makes it easier to do business while on the road."
SECURITY BARRIERS. Many corporate travelers, however, are going to run up against security barriers designed to block access to internal networks from the Internet. A technique called virtual private networking can be used to give remote users secure access to company systems through the Net, but it is new and not yet widely used. Stan Julien, hospitality industry marketing manager for Microsoft, predicts that corporate infotech managers will embrace the new technology for one simple reason: "Virtual private networks generally produce a 50% savings over dial-up in the cost of supporting mobile forces."
I'm not throwing my modem away yet. But I'm adding a network card to my traveling kit, and I expect more laptop makers to follow Apple and Hitachi and build special ports into their notebooks. The advantages of network links are too compelling, and I can't wait for the day when I connect as easily on the road as I do at the office.