By Michelle V. Rafter
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Not so long ago, the only places to log onto the Internet away from home or the office were cybercafes in hip spots like New York and San Francisco.
That was then. Now, public Internet terminals are popping up everything from airports to copy centers to convenience stores, offering access to e-mail and the Web on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Public Internet terminals aren't ubiquitous yet, but give them a few years and they could be, industry insiders believe.
"Public access is where the Internet was two years ago," said Pam Shelpuk, co-founder of CyberFlyer Technologies (http://www.cyberflyer.com), a Denver startup in the middle of installing terminals in eight U.S. airports.
Companies are putting up Internet kiosks and modem-equipped PCs any place they think will attract a steady stream of potential customers. So far, airports, train stations, commuter ferries and other transportation centers account for the most traffic, luring business travelers and others who don't mind spending a few bucks to check their e-mail.
But companies are equally enthusiastic about the potential of hotel lobbies, shopping centers, movie theaters, subways, even truck stops as Internet way stations.
The basic public Internet terminal is a free-standing unit that looks like a pay phone booth, with one or two PCs contained in a tamper-resistant metal case, with a mouse, keyboard and built-in credit-card reader.
Some offer separate modem ports and electrical outlets, so people traveling with a laptop can plug in and log onto their corporate networks. A few have pay phones beside the computer screens. Most terminals provide Internet access via high-speed ISDN or T1 access lines through a local or national Internet service provider.
On the software side, terminals are loaded with Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer for Web browsing, and in some cases, major online services such as America Online and CompuServe. If they know how, visitors can check their home or office email using Hotmail, NetAddress or other free, Web-based email services.
Depending on the provider, prices for logging on range from 25 to 33 cents a minute charged to a credit card.
One of the newest players is Kinko's (http://www.kinkos.com), which added Internet access to its chain of 830 U.S. and Canadian copy centers in September. Customers pay $12 an hour to use standard PCs and Macs connected to the Internet through an ISDN line provided by Kinko's Internet service provider, GTE. The service is proving popular, though a spokeswoman for the Ventura, Calif., company wouldn't discuss details.
"We're committed to providing customers with access to communications inexpensively and efficiently, and this is part of that effort. We like to think we're one step ahead of the technology curve," said spokeswoman Laura McCormick.
In another recent development, US West and Southland Corp. are testing Internet kiosks in eight 7-Eleven stores around Seattle. Customers log on free for five minutes, then pay $2.95 for 10 minutes, plus $1.95 for additional 10-minute sessions.
"It's not the kind of place you'd think of immediately as an Internet site, but in certain stores there seem to be quite a few hits," said Steve Dennis, US West manager of paid-access applications.
US West has operated an additional 30 screens -- some multi-sided terminals have more than one screen -- at Sea-Tac Airport, ferry stops and shopping centers around Seattle since March. Initial results show e-mail is the most popular activity, with people staying on five minutes at a time to check mail, Dennis said.
US West is using equipment manufactured by Atcom/Info (http://www.atcominfo.com), a San Diego company that has installed more than 170 terminals around the country in the past year. For a small number of machines Atcom/Info operates itself, the company charges 33 cents a minute. At that rate, per-screen revenue runs $33 to $55 a day, or up to $3,300 a month for a two-screen unit, according to Neil Senturia, Atcom/Info chief executive.
Competitor CyberFlyer last summer cemented a three-year contract with Host Marriott to install Internet terminals in seven as-yet unnamed U.S. airports. Initially, CyberFlyer will place 40 to 60 screens in the airports, said Shelpuk, the company's marketing vice president. In all locations, CyberFlyer charges 33 cents a minute, with the first five minutes free.
CyberFlyer installed six Internet terminals in the Norfolk, Va., airport in mid-June, and since then has determined terminals are used an average of 28 times a day, 12 minutes per session. The most popular Web sites are a live flight tracker called Trip.com (http://www.trip.com), the Norfolk airport's home page and Weather.com (http://www.weather.com).
Other extras found on CyberFlyer terminals include a specialized edition of Microsoft's Expedia travel software and city directories from Yahoo. A frequent-user program is in the works.
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(Michelle V. Rafter writes about cyberspace and technology from Los Angeles. Reach her at mvrafter(at)deltanet.com. Opinions expressed in this column are her own.)