Not so long ago, the only places to log onto the Internet away from home or the office were cybercafes. Now, public Internet terminals are popping up in airports, copy centers and convenience stores, offering access to e-mail and the Web on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Public Internet terminals aren't everywhere, 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, cofounder of CyberFlyer Technologies (http: //www.cyberflyer.com), a Denver start-up in the middle of installing terminals in several U.S. airports.
(A spokeswoman for Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport said it's considering adding Internet terminals, although no firm time line has been set.)
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 and other transportation centers account for the most traffic, luring travelers 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 aside 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. Visitors can check their home or office e-mail using Hotmail, NetAddress or other free, Web-based e-mail 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.
In another recent development, U S 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, U S West manager of paid-access applications.
U S West has operated an additional 30 screens - some multisided terminals have more than one screen - around Seattle since March. Initial results show that e-mail is the most popular activity, with people staying on five minutes at a time to check messages, he said.
U S West is using equipment manufactured by Atcom/Info, which has installed more than 170 terminals around the country in the past year.
StarTribune Twin Cities 11/18/97