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Free-For-All Access To Wireless LANs

Airports and hotels find there may be benefits to providing free service
The convenience of wireless access typically comes with a high price tag. But that's changing. Some airports and hotels have begun installing 802.11 Wi-Fi networks and letting travelers use them for free.

Pittsburgh International Airport, which recently completed deployment of a free wireless LAN in its food court, is expanding it to all gates. "We are the only airport in the country, and one of two in the world, to offer this as a free service to the traveling public," says Tony Gialloreto, the airport's IT manager. "It's a real asset."



A pay-for-use wireless network wasn't a success, so Pittsburgh International Airport installed a free wireless LAN.

Photo by John Heller/Bloomburg News
The airport previously had a pay-for-use wireless LAN, operated by an outside contractor. But when the vendor tried to increase the price of the contract for the service, airport officials balked. The pay network hadn't been much of a success, Gialloreto says. "We determined that we weren't having a lot of hits." Few travelers want to pay the going airport Wi-Fi rate of around $11 for 24 hours of service, he says. "Most people are in and out in an hour or two."

For the new network, the airport deployed an Enterasys Secure Networks wireless LAN architecture. The feedback from travelers has been great, Gialloreto says, and executives at other airports have begun asking his advice on how to follow suit.

These efforts don't invalidate the pay model, but prove there are situations where it doesn't work, says Pat Hurley, an analyst at consulting firm TeleChoice. The number of Wi-Fi users who've paid for access is in the low-single-digit percentages, he says. "The big problem with the pay model right now is that if I travel a lot, I have to end up getting an account with two or three different providers" for nationwide access. At $30 to $35 per subscription each month, those costs quickly mount. In contrast, it's not that expensive for organizations to set up a free wireless LAN.

The hotel industry is moving in this direction, too. Choice Hotels International Inc., one of the largest lodging franchisors in the world, is planning to roll out free wireless Internet access in public areas and guest rooms at all of its 370 Comfort Suites and 140 Clarion properties by the end of May and to expand the program to two more of the company's brands by the end of the year.

Guests are making high-speed Internet access a deciding factor when choosing a hotel, says Paul Payette, senior director of new business development for Choice. "The market's going to dictate what you need to do to be competitive," he says. Wireless has become so mainstream that it made sense for Choice to go the wireless route over a wired LAN, Payette says. The average installation will cost about $13,000 per hotel.

Best Western also plans to roll out free wireless access this year, complemented by wired access. But at San Francisco International Airport, there's still faith in the pay-for-wireless-service model. The airport last summer entered into a five-year contract with T-Mobile that called for the vendor to install and maintain all equipment in exchange for a percentage of user-access fees. The airport expects eventually to make money from the service, community-affairs director Michael McCarron says, but it isn't predicting when it will become profitable.

Continue to the sidebar: An Answer To Multiple Wireless LAN Bills
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