Internet Without Boundaries

Wi-Fi lures hotels, airlines as it takes the Net to 10,000 feet and beyond

By: By R. Scott Macintosh

A technology commonly referred to as wireless fidelity, or “Wi-Fi,” is bringing the Internet to places that once were unreachable.

Wi-Fi has emerged as one of the hottest technologies in recent years. With its easy wireless access to the Internet at low or no cost, it is changing how people access information in public spaces in the air, in airports, in hotels and even in parks.

Over the next three months Lufthansa flights between Frankfurt and Washington, D.C., will offer travelers free access to a Wi-Fi connection. The program, developed with Boeing, uses the wireless technology to bring a DSL-quality connection to passengers in the air.

If successful, both companies hope to expand Boeing in partnership with other airlines and Lufthansa moving to put it on all intercontinental flights. Lufthansa eventually hopes to charge 30 to 35 euros (roughly $32 to $38) for the service.

Most Internet connections stop at the wall jack, but Wi-Fi is wireless and more than one person can connect in so-called “hot spots,” zones with a radius of roughly 300 feet.

It is an attractive technology for business travelers and people on the go, spurring the travel sector to build-up Wi-Fi infrastructures.

Wireless technology company T-Mobile USA is working to put Wi-Fi in U.S. airports through deals with Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines.

The company already has 25 Wi-Fi hot spots in airline lounges, and is working to extend the service to the gate. The company manages a Wi-Fi national network with connections in Starbucks Coffee and Borders Books in addition to the airline lounges.

“It extends the office experience for traveling professionals,” said Bryan Zidar, a spokesman for the company.

T-Mobile offers unlimited plans with monthly fees, pre-paid plans or pay-as-you-go meter plans, which serves as “a digital filling station” for people wanting limited one-time use.

Hotels have been quick to adopt the new technology, also in the hopes of attracting business travelers.

Marriott International is planning one of the hotel sector’s largest deployments of Wi-Fi, with technology planned for hundreds of hotels in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. Selected Residence Inns, Ramada Inns, Howard Johnsons and Four Seasons hotels also offer Wi-Fi.

“Certainly, it’s a way to attract customers,” said Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit group overseeing the development of Wi-Fi. “It’s a way for hotels to differentiate themselves from the competition.”

Wi-Fi is currently a $2 billion industry, just on the hardware side. And it is growing 25 to 30 percent a year, according to Eaton. Public access space is also growing rapidly, nearly doubling in the last year to approximately 3,000 hot spots around the country.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is creating a Web site called the Wi-Fi Zone, which will list hot spots worldwide and give information about Wi-Fi products.

“We’ll have a zone finder, so people can find zones when making travel plans,” Eaton said.

The site is expected to be public March 12.

Wi-Fi Alliance