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Hotel chain offers wireless Net access

The Four Seasons hopes to spoil business travelers with its newest luxury: wireless Internet access based on WiFi, or 802.11 technology.

    The Four Seasons Resort, long known for pampering guests with Jack Nicklaus golf courses and French buffets, hopes to spoil business travelers with its newest luxury: wireless Internet access.

    The Toronto-based hotel chain completed installation earlier this month of WiFi Internet access based on the 802.11b specification in all conference rooms, lobbies and open areas of 56 luxury resorts worldwide.

    That means any guest with a wireless-capable notebook can download e-mail or surf the Web at high speed while sipping a pina colada at a beach cabana without getting tangled in gangly cables.

    "When guests filled out comment cards, one of the first things they'd request was better Internet connectivity," said Eric Benchetrit, assistant director of management information systems at the Four Seasons Aviara in Carlsbad, Calif., one of the first Four Seasons to provide WiFi. "Lots of our guests come from the snow and they want to relax in the sun--but they've got to work. Now they can sit at the pool and send e-mail to the office."

    Wyndham and Summerfield Suites hotel chains also offer WiFi access, but Four Seasons says its project is one of the most ambitious in the hotel industry. The chain simultaneously launched a program offering T1 line access to most individual hotel rooms.

    The Four Seasons' WiFi launch comes as the tourism industry--and even the broader service industry--rushes to embrace wireless technology.

    From the San Francisco International Airport to Starbucks Coffee, consumer-oriented businesses are trying to cater to business travelers and others who require 24-hour, high-speed connections, without the flakiness and phone charges of dial-up access. Meanwhile, computer manufacturers are racing to install laptops with integrated wireless capabilities.

    Although the stakes are high for computer makers, hotels also have a big incentive to go wireless: Many conference organizers--especially in the technology niche--only pick WiFi-enabled venues for their lucrative annual meetings and industry get-togethers. Because of that, wireless enthusiasts say, few major hotel chains and convention centers will lack WiFi several years from now.

    "It's very real. I don't think the rollout is going to take very long--a couple, three years to be at every major hotel," said C. Brian Grimm of Wilmington, N.C.-based Wave Communications. "A typical business traveler goes to a hotel and needs to download 70 to 80 e-mails. Then you've got some butthead brother-in-law sending you 17 pictures of their new baby, some guy who wants to send you a 6.3 megabyte JPEG file--it really puts a kink in your travel if you're dial-up. With WiFi, within 4 minutes, you can download all of it."

    Behind the rush to go wireless is the technical standard 802.11, which requires the installation of a small, radio "hot spot" connected to the Internet via a T1 phone line or DSL connection. The radio extends the wire line and connects with any mobile devices equipped with mini-radios in PC cards. Products that use 802.11 technology are called WiFi, short for "wireless fidelity."

    WiFi has become a preferred method for hotels, airports and other businesses looking for wireless local-area networks. It uses unlicensed airwaves, so the airtime is free; users don't have to tie up hotel phone lines or miss important telephone calls. It's also fast: Most WiFi access points deliver data about 20 times faster than a 56K modem.

    Setting up hotels to go wireless involves installing a series of "access points," little radios that can be as small as a can of soda and provide Internet access to anyone within a 300-foot radius of the radio. The cost varies, depending on the location, but it usually runs between $500 and $1,000 per point. The largest conference rooms at hotels need about three or four points. A special sitting room at an airport can get by with one.

    An added bonus for hotels and airports that want to offer WiFi: Some start-ups are waiving the installation fee. Austin, Texas-based Wayport subsidized the Four Seasons, Wyndham and some Holiday Inn installations. Four Seasons charges conference organizers an extra fee to let attendants use WiFi; guests don't pay extra for wireless service.

    The relatively small cost of the installations, combined with the start-up subsidies, could make WiFi ubiquitous--even at smaller and budget hotel chains. For example, Wayport already provides WiFi access to hotels such as the Good Nite Inn in Redwood City, Calif.; the Holiday Inn Express in Overland Park, Kan.; and Sleep Inn in Nashville, Tenn.

    Given WiFi's migration to more moderately priced hotels, some say they wouldn't be surprised if folksy pitchman Tom Bodett is soon hawking wireless Internet access at Motel 6. Instead of "We'll leave the light on for you," it could become, "We'll leave the WiFi on for you," Grimm said.

    "You'd be surprised at how much demand there is for this," Grimm said. "Most of the people who stay at Red Roof Inn are sales guys. What do these people do in the evenings? They're getting their e-mail. Right now you've got 75 of these buggers in the hotel, jamming up the hotel's phone system, and they're paying $1 per call."