Now You Can Stay Wired Everywhere

On a typical business trip, you dash to the airport, spend several hours on an airplane, then check into a hotel. Until recently, that course would have taken you right to the Bermuda Triangle of communications, where you'd lose touch with your E-mail, your office network, and the World Wide Web.

But today, airports, planes, and hotels are offering a variety of services to keep you connected, from power ports that supply your laptop with juice to an onstaff "comp-cierge" to solve all your PC woes. Of course, doing your computing from the road will be slower and more expensive than from your office desktop. And while all this access may even allow you to get by without hauling around your laptop, you probably still won't want to leave home without it.

If you're a business-class ticket holder or frequent-flier club member, your best bet at the airport is the business class lounge. Every major carrier has plenty of data ports you can plug your laptop into. Just remember to bring that magical piece of cord necessary to connect your computer to the phone.

WAIT AND SURF. Even if you don't have special lounge privileges, a growing number of airports are offering Internet terminals right in the public gate areas. AT&T has just installed 550 "smart" phones that let laptop-laden travelers connect to the Web and send and receive E-mail at Newark International Airport, JFK in New York, Phoenix Sky Harbor, and Logan in Boston. Meanwhile, GTE kiosks allow users--with or without laptops--to surf the Web and do E-mail for $3.75 per 15 minutes. These kiosks, which look like phone booths, are at Dallas-Fort Worth International and Hartford's Bradley International airports as well as American Airlines' Admirals Club at Chicago's O'Hare.

Other companies coming to the rescue of road warriors are Get2Net and Laptop Lane. New York-based Get2Net offers Netstations, or cubicles with modems and desktop computers. All this connectivity is free, the idea being that Get2Net's revenue will come from advertising. All three major New York airports--JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark--along with Logan, Bradley, Charlotte/Douglas International, Norfolk International, and O'Hare, house NetStations. Some 200 NetStations are operating, with another 6,000 scheduled to be in service by 2003.

Get2Net also is teaming up with Host Marriott Services to set up NetSets at Marriott's airport restaurants and cocktail lounges. Already, at such airports as O'Hare and LaGuardia, travelers hungry for a burger and E-mail can get both at coffee shops that have tables equipped with power ports, modems, and computers. Taking this concept further, Get2Net and Host Marriott Services are introducing Internet-themed restaurants called Cyberflyer Clubs. The first is slated to open in March at St. Louis' Lambert airport.

Get2Net's major rival is Seattle-based Laptop Lane. Its Personal Space Stations are located near gates and waiting areas in Seattle-Tacoma International and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International airports. The workstations are equipped with a Pentium II PC, laser printer, multiline phone, fax machine, and a superfast T-1 line for Web and E-mail access. To use the services, you pay $2 for five minutes and 38 cents per minute thereafter. So a half hour will set you back about $12. Each Laptop Lane has space to store your luggage and, for the computer-challenged, a tech consultant.

Staying connected and productive once you're airborne is another matter entirely. If you're not carrying a laptop, just sit back and enjoy the movie. If you do have one, you must deal with two issues: power and the slow modem speed offered by the onboard phones. Although every major airline has been trumpeting power ports in business class, fewer than 1% of all business class seats are so equipped. That will change as carriers add new aircraft to their fleets, but for now, bring extra batteries. Among major airlines, Delta delivers power to business and first-class passengers on most international flights. American has installed power ports for business and first-class seats on about 25% of its planes on both domestic and international routes.

Even if you do have access to an onboard power port, you'll need an adapter and cable. As columnist Joe Bracatelli notes, each laptop requires a different kind of cable, which together with an adapter can cost a hundred bucks or so. He suggests checking with Magellan's, an online and print travel-goods supplier that has a wide range of cables.

IN-HOUSE CONSULTANTS. When onboard phones supported data transmission rates of only 2400 bits per second, transferring a one paragraph E-mail message took forever. A recent GTE Airfone upgrade that now supports computer modems at 9600 bps lets users transfer 12 one-page E-mails in less than a minute. That's a big difference, especially since it costs $2.99 just to get connected on a GTE Airfone and $3.28 for every minute of airtime. AT&T's Airone phones are also being upgraded.

Back on the ground, the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago (312 266-1000) recently added a compcierge to answer guests' computer-related questions. These consultants are in the hotel on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., although they field pages all hours of the day. A typical problem for guests, says compcierge Joe Tesfai, is accessing an E-mailed file. But Tesfai also has had to replace a hard drive for a guest who had a 7 a.m. presentation the next day. Business travelers, who generally pay a corporate room rate of $345 per night, also can use the 24-hour Executive Business Center, which has PCs, Macs, and printers. The hotel even supplies five major Internet service providers, including a local one for guests who don't have an account. The Net service is free for the first 15 minutes and $20 an hour after that.

Not surprisingly, newer boutique-style hotels are leading the charge toward connectivity. At Starwood's W New York (212 496-1572), which opened in December, guests may surf the Web while in bed using infrared keyboards and their room TV. They can also use Spectralink in-house cell phones, which let them wander to the bar and still receive calls. Laptop luggers may utilize a high-speed, direct Ethernet connection, but only if they've installed an Ethernet card on their computer. More useful are the printer/fax/copier combination machines, available in 15% of the rooms. Hyatt is in the process of installing similar all-in-one machines in 5,200 rooms in 90 hotels in the U.S. and Canada. Guests would pay a $20-a-day premium.

Keeping road warriors connected is a big challenge for service providers. Hotels are petrified they'll spend millions of dollars on technology that will be obsolete before they finish installing it. Airlines move slowly because reconfiguring their fleet is a time-consuming process that requires taking planes out of service. Still, the travel industry has come a long way in a short time. Now that you have access to smart phones, Ethernet links, and infrared keyboards, you can stay in touch, even in the Bermuda Triangle.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.