Vendors Are Competing to Install Public-Access Internet Terminals in Airports, Other Travel LocalesBy MICHELLE V. RAFTER, Special to The Times (LA>
Walk by Gate 70 in the United Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport and you'll spot what looks like a phone booth offering travelers an Internet connection with a built-in PC, screen and keyboard.
The Internet booth is one of six in tests at LAX since December and one of hundreds that have popped up over the last year in airports, malls, hotel lobbies and other public venues around the country. Vendors of so-called public-access Internet terminals are counting on people who use the Internet at work or home to seek it out when they travel, even if they're not toting a laptop. They're betting people won't blink at the pay phone rates--up to 33 cents a minute--to get their Net fix. To that end, Internet terminal makers are flocking to the field, offering kiosks geared to business travelers, vacationers--even truck drivers. Competition is pitting telecom giants such as GTE, Pacific Bell, US West and Hughes Electronics against start-ups such as Veicon Technology, CyberFlyer Technologies, Blueshift Geodesics and USCommunication Services. Joining them are such makers of traditional stand-alone information kiosks as QuickATM and King Products, all eager to catch the Internet wave. Many believe 1998 will be the year public-use Internet kiosks take off. John Sullivan is a believer. The sales director for Stamford, Conn.-based Norseland spends most of his time on the road and has used Internet terminals at airports in San Francisco and Los Angeles. While waiting to catch a flight out of LAX recently, Sullivan stopped at a kiosk there for 15 minutes to check his e-mail and stocks. "It's very simple to use and very inexpensive from my perspective," he said. Demand in certain truck stops has been overwhelming, said Jim Bernet, president of San Diego-based USCommunication Services, which runs 70 PayNet Internet terminals in truck stops nationwide.
"In three to five years, in every location that has a pay phone there will be [Internet] equipment," he said. To Bernet, the best indicator that interest is rising is his latest contract: a deal with the Arizona Transportation Department to install eight public Internet terminals in welcome centers and rest stops around the state.
Enthusiasm aside, success remains uncertain. Terminals are expensive to assemble--up to $10,000 or more for a complete PC, less than half that amount for a network computer. Hiring tech crews to fix broken machines, remotely monitor software and do preventive maintenance is also expensive. Add to that Internet access costs. Then there's the fundamental question of whether travelers really want to stay that wired, said Charles Schultz, a kiosk industry analyst with Probe Research in Cedar Knoll()s, N.J. "Part of the pitch has been they're going to relieve the road warrior of having to carry his laptop around, but I don't see that. People don't carry laptops just to read e-mail," Shultz said.
As if to illustrate his point, on a recent weekday in the Oakland Airport, a TouchNet Internet terminal located in an otherwise bustling Southwest Airlines() gate area sat idle, a wad of gum stuck unceremoniously next to the keyboard. But vendors are willing to take their chances. "Put it this way: I don't see it as being any less profitable than the pay phone business was 10 years ago. It's not a huge moneymaker, but it is a very satisfying business," said Steve Dennis, head of pay phone and Internet terminal operations at US West, which has 60 machines in the field. "But there aren't enough locations to divide this into hundreds of competitors."
Basic public-access Internet terminals contain a PC housed in a tamper-proof metal case with a display, keyboard, mouse and credit card reader. Like pay phones, some are built into the wall, others are encased in a free-standing kiosk with PCs on one, two or all four sides.
Depending on the maker, terminals also include scanners, printers, dollar bill feeders, telephone handsets and modem ports, and electrical outlets so people who travel with laptops can plug in. Most terminals are connected to the Internet via high-speed ISDN or T1 lines through a local or national access provider. Travelers pay 25 cents to 33 cents a minute, with one-, five- or 10-minute minimums. Hughes Network Systems(), a division of El Segundo-based Hughes Electronics, is taking a slightly different approach, offering a combination Internet-TV kiosk based on the company's DirecDuo satellite TV and Internet access technologies. Hughes and partners Vetec Visitronics of Dallas and Net Works Communications of Denver hope to sell the devices to airports and airlines to be placed in waiting areas.
* * * Officials for the venture said they have a deal with Southwest Airlines to put at least 30 terminals in Houston's William P. Hobby Airport. A Southwest official said the airline is still investigating but supports the concept, because it would help promote its Web site and ticketless travel service. "Our intention is to provide access to customers who don't have a computer at home or who are at the airport and don't have their PC, to give them the opportunity to purchase tickets," said Elizabeth Elam, a Southwest automation specialist. "It's a way of getting the entertainment aspect into the gate as well." At LAX, travelers pay $2.50 for 10 minutes on one of QuickATM's QuickAid Internet kiosks in the United Airlines or Tom Bradley International terminals. The two-screen kiosks in the United terminal are the busiest QuickATM operates, attracting up to 30 users a day per screen, with each visitor spending 10 to 15 minutes, said Howard Zack, president of the Berkeley company. "E-mail is the killer app," Zack said. "We have a suggestion box on the main menu that elicits hundreds of comments a month. People say it's a godsend to their travel plans. Many are highly critical because it's not customized the way they want it. But they say they can't wait to use it again." The airport, which receives 33% of all revenue generated by the machines, is expected in June to begin requesting bids from vendors for permanent Internet kiosks, said Mark Johnson, an LAX infrastructure planning supervisor. US West has placed Internet kiosks from Seattle to Minneapolis, with mixed results. Machines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and several shopping malls and hotel lobbies are doing well. But units in eight Seattle-area 7-Eleven convenience stores haven't been as popular as expected, according to US West's Dennis. "If [convenience stores] end up not being a huge market, it nonetheless serves the purpose to give people the feeling that eventually this service will be accessible from a wide variety of locations," Dennis said.
Other phone companies haven't been as aggressive. GTE has 26 public-use Internet kiosks at Dallas/Ft. Worth, New York's La Guardia and Chicago's O'Hare airports. But GTE recently removed a kiosk from Marty Sandercock's Ontario 76 Auto Truck Plaza truck stop in Ontario, Calif. After the company switched from a trial rate of $3.99 an hour to 33 cents a minute, usage plummeted, Sandercock said.
PacBell installed three kiosks at San Diego's Lindbergh Field airport in November, but officials won't discuss future plans.
An early leader, Atcom/Info in San Diego, has stopped making kiosks to concentrate on licensing its CyberShell operating system software, which Atcom/Info Chief Executive Neil Senturia hopes will become "the Windows for public terminals." The company has licensing deals with US West, PacBell, GTE, BellSouth, Sprint and MCI, and its software appears on more than 250 terminals. Atcom/Info, touch-screen maker King Products and Canada Payphone recently announced plans to put public-use Internet terminals in hotels, airports and other public spaces across Canada in 1998. Atcom/Info is also branching out to offer high-speed access in hotel rooms. In a deal with Microsoft and CGX Communications, Atcom/Info has placed high-speed T1 connections in 2,862 hotel rooms, including at Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt properties. The partners hope to have their Iport jacks in as many as 40,000 hotel rooms by the end of the year.
* * * Industry insiders say 1998 could also be the year new forms of public-access Internet machines appear. Telecommunications agencies in Hong Kong, Britain, Germany and France are testing Internet-enabled multimedia telephones and are preparing requests for bids for the products. In one venture, Toronto-based King Products and New World Telephone in Hong Kong are installing 350 multimedia phones with voice and Internet capabilities in the territory's new airport, including 82 devices that will have built-in scanners for sending faxes. In the United States, vendors of traditional stand-alone, touch-screen kiosks used in retail, tourism and other applications are beginning to wire them to the Internet. In December, NCR announced a joint venture with CyberFlyer Technologies, a Denver start-up, to market Internet-enabled kiosks to banks as replacements for ATM machines. Consumers could use Web-enabled ATMs not only to withdraw cash, but also to browse through their checking accounts or read about a bank's 401(k) program, said Pam Shelpuk, CyberFlyer marketing manager.
* * * Freelance writer Michelle V. Rafter can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. * * *
© 1998 Kiosks.Org.