A few years ago, I commuted weekly between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I didn't mind the flight, which took just an hour. It was the wait at the airport that bugged me.
As often as not, my flight would be delayed because of fog or some other weather condition, and I'd end up being stuck in an ergonomically unfriendly chair, making calls to the office, and writing on my laptop computer. To check my email, I'd have to remember to bring a phone cord (or pay a ridiculous price for a new one at the airport gift shop), plug it into a data-line enabled payphone, and dial the toll free number to connect my computer to the company mail server.
It was a hassle. The connection was often unreliable, and I'd sometimes have to call a half-dozen times to get all my incoming email. Then, after I'd downloaded my messages, I'd sit back down in the designed-by-a-sadist chair, read my email, write replies, then walk back to the phone and go through the whole process again just to send my email.
I almost - almost , mind you - wish I were commuting again so I could use Wayport's wireless Internet service. Today, travelers waiting for their flights in San Jose, Austin, Dallas, and Seattle can get online simply by launching their web browsing programs on laptops equipped with wireless Ethernet cards.
How it works
A screen pops up on their laptops with instructions on how to log onto Wayport's network, pay the $4.95 flat-rate fee with their credit card, and start using the Internet at speeds 50 to 200 times faster than a modem. Customers are said to like the service so much that they're sometimes sorry to see their plane pull up to the boarding gate.
Austin, Texas-based Wayport, founded in 1996, is the world's largest supplier of wireless networks for airports, hotels, and convention centers. Nearly 100,000 hotel rooms in over 400 hotels around the country use Wayport's wired and wireless Ethernet systems, and several new airports will be coming on board in the months ahead.
The company uses a high-speed wireless technology called Wi-Fi (which also goes by the more technical name of the IEEE 802.11b standard) to set up wireless local area networks that can be used by anyone with a wireless Ethernet card installed in their computer or handheld device. Wi-Fi uses the same 2.4 Gigahertz frequency that cordless phones use and has a range of 150 to 300 feet, depending on the walls and barriers between devices.
Because of its low cost and ease of use, Wi-Fi has been gaining in popularity. International Data Corp. (IDC) reports that sales in Wi-Fi equipment will reach $547 million in 2004, up from $208 in 1999. Today, a Wi-Fi card for Windows or Apple computer costs about $100. "Access points," or base stations, run between $200 to $1000 each.
Wi-Fi isn't intended to be a replacement for 3G networks; it's more likely that it will complement 3G by giving business travelers high-speed "hotspots" at hotels, airports, and other transit areas where they can log on to the Net with an ultra speedy connection.
The Wayport way
When Wayport first began installing its systems in airports, the company footed the bill for capital expenses and recurring costs. "That is now changing, now that everybody is realizing the benefit of high-speed wireless and wired in their properties," says Dan Lowden, vice president of marketing for Wayport. Now he says, properties are paying for capital expenses up front, as well as the recurring costs, and revenue is shared between the properties and Wayport. "Our business model is proving itself, and we are well on our way to profitability within a very short period," he says.
So far, Wayport's clients and end-users appreciate the service. Hotel managers find that there is no price resistance to the flat rate fee of $10 for 24 hours of Internet service they charge customers to use Wayport.
One reason Wayport has been so successful in making deals with hotel chains such as the Four Seasons, Wyndham International, Hilton, Marriott, and Radisson, is because it offers everything they need to connect their guests to the Internet without requiring anything from the hotel.
Wayport manages the entire project: it does the site mapping, installs all the equipment (which they buy from Cisco and other hardware manufacturers) and supplies 24/7 technical support. When a hotel guest needs help getting online, they call Wayport's in-house call center, not the hotel's harried front desk clerks.
Wireless: Better, cheaper, faster
Last month, Wayport launched a new "all-wireless" program that makes it even easier for a hotel to say yes to their service. The wireless hotel room solution means that no cables have to be installed in individual rooms, which is a boon to hotel owners who don't want crews digging holes and routing wires through their buildings for historical reasons, or who can't afford to shut down parts of their hotel while equipment is being installed.
Not only is Wi-Fi less disruptive and less complicated than installing a wired Ethernet system, says Lowden, "in many cases it's a less costly alternative."
For now, hotels that go with an all-wireless system will provide wireless Ethernet cards to guests that need them, but equipment manufactures are already starting to build their products with Wi'Fi capabilities built-in so that they'll be ready for wireless as soon as users turn them on. The software industry is also gearing up for Wi'Fi. When Windows XP launches in October it will allow users to search for network hotspots and give them the option to connect.
While Wayport intends to expand rapidly into other airports and hotels, they have no plans to move into consumer markets, as Wayport competitor MobileStar is doing at 155 Starbucks locations around the US. "We want to be where the business traveler needs it most," says Lowden. "Today we feel that's in the airports and hotels, and thereŭs just so much opportunity there that that's going to be the focus for as far as we can see."
Now if they could only do something about making the chairs at the airport less painful.
Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.