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Wireless ISPs burning for "hot spots"

Sip And Surf is giving away Wi-Fi gear, looking to boost the number of urban areas that offer wireless Web access. Meanwhile, Canada's FatPort chats up a deal with Covad.

The nation's oldest "hot spot" network plans to give away Wi-Fi equipment starting Friday, in an aggressive push to increase the number of urban areas that offer wireless Web access.

National hot spot network Surf And Sip will offer the equipment free to anyone buying DirecTV DSL (digital subscriber line) service, said Rick Ehrlinspiel, chief executive of Surf And Sip. DirecTV has been supplying Surf And Sip hot spots with broadband access for about 18 months.

The coffee shops, restaurants or bookstores most likely to sign up will become part of Surf And Sip's hot spot network, where time online is sold in hourly, weekly or monthly chunks, he said. The business owner must pay for DSL service but will get half of the revenue from any wireless Web wandering.

Surf And Sip is just one of three so-called WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers) to announce expansion plans Wednesday. WISPs sell Web access at any number of locations nationwide that have Wi-Fi gear and a digital subscriber line or a cable modem. The other WISPs expanding include T-Mobile and Canadian WISP FatPort.

The 2-year-old WISP industry has been criticized for promising "national coverage" but being able to deliver only partial coverage. The largest U.S. WISP is T-Mobile Wireless, which has more than 2,000 locations. Most of the other WISPs have fewer than 1,000 locations nationally.

But there are signs of increased efforts to fan out throughout the entire industry. Aside from Surf And Sip, wireless carrier T-Mobile Wednesday unveiled plans to sell wireless access using Wi-Fi inside about 100 airport clubs and lounges throughout the United States.

The company signed agreements with three major airlines: American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.

T-Mobile spokesman Bryan Zidar did not reveal details of the agreements, such as how much, if anything, the airlines are paying for the networking equipment.

Meanwhile, FatPort began discussions Wednesday to expand into the United States using Covad Communications' digital subscriber lines, according to Sean O'Mahony, FatPort's chief executive.

FatPort sells "Espresso," a so-called hot-spot-in-a-box because it's everything a location needs to set up a Wi-Fi network and start charging for wireless Web access. Under terms of the deal being worked out, FatPort will lease the Espresso equipment for $200 a month. The cost will include a Covad DSL subscription, O'Mahony said.

This is a unique approach; major WISPs like T-Mobile choose to buy DSL access from scores of different providers to ensure they can expand into any area where DSL is available.

Covad spokesman Pavel Radda said his company and FatPort are in talks now, but nothing has been finalized.

"What they are asking for isn't that outrageous, but we haven't finalized anything yet," he said.