Computers Made Plain Kiosks Plug Travelers, Shoppers Into Net (Investor's Business Daily; 12/17/97)

This business trip, you're leaving your notebook computer home. But what if you want to connect to the Internet?

If you're at airports in Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago or a few other cities, there's no reason to fret. Just use a public Internet kiosk. It's not unlike a pay phone.

You can check your electronic mail, see how your stocks are doing, get a weather report for the city you're traveling to or simply browse the Internet.

These Internet kiosks have limits, though. For example, they aren't equipped with printers or floppy disk drives. At least, not yet.

It's still a new concept. Phone companies such as GTE Corp. and US West Communications Group are starting to test the market for public Internet kiosks.

Stamford, Conn.-based GTE is targeting airports first. It has installed 10 Internet kiosks, which it calls cyberbooths, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. It also has some at Chicago's O'Hare, New York's La Guardia and the Hartford, Conn., airport.

"Location is very important," said Shirley Heath, GTE Internetworking's manager of new business development. Security is one issue. The computers need to be safe from vandalism.

Heath says "dwell time" also is important. So GTE has put many Internet kiosks in lounges such as American Airlines' Admirals Club.

While travelers might be the most likely to find and use airport Internet kiosks, they're also popping up at convention centers, railroad terminals, shopping malls, hotels and restaurants.

A truck stop in Ontario, Calif., is GTE's second-busiest Internet kiosk, after the Dallas airport. Like business travelers, truckers may want to know what the weather will be like at their destination point, says Jim Balderston, analyst with Zona Research Inc., a Redwood City, Calif. market research firm.

US West has signed a deal with Dallas-based Southland Corp. The phone company is installing Internet kiosks at eight of Southland's 7Eleven stores in the Seattle area.

Internet kiosks will be customized for location and clientele, says David Cooperstein, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Travelers, shoppers and visitors "may want to do a little quick research related to the place they're at," he said.

Many of the kiosks connect to online services, such as America Online. Most often, though, the kiosks are used for checking e-mail, analysts say.

If you want to access the Internet at an airport or 7-Eleven store, get ready to pull out your credit card. The PCs built into the Internet kiosks are equipped with electronic card readers.

GTE charges 33 cents a minute for Net access, or about $21 an hour.

At 7-Eleven stores, US West charges 35 cents a minute. You also can pay $2.95 for a 10-minute block and $1.95 for each 10-minute block thereafter.

GTE connects its kiosks to the Internet with digital phone lines that operate at 128 kilobits per second. That's about four times faster than most home connections.

Generally, the kiosks have PCs powered by Intel's Pentium chips. The monitors are higher-end, color. And the keyboards are ruggedized.

But there are no printers in the kiosks - for a couple of reasons.

One is maintenance. Phone companies would need employees to check paper stocks regularly.

The other major reason is security. Says GTE's Heath: Say you try to print out an important e-mail message, but the paper gets jammed. You leave, and then someone comes along and retrieves the message.

Nor are PCs inside public Internet kiosks equipped with floppy disk slots. As a result, users can't download and save files for later use.

Again, security is the issue. A built-in floppy slot could enable hackers - crooks who gain unauthorized access to computer systems - to misuse the Internet kiosks, analysts say.

Are Internet kiosks catching on? It's too early to tell, say GTE and US West.

GTE says its cyberbooths in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport were used more than 25,400 times from November '96 through May '97. About one-fourth were repeat users.

GTE has bought obelisk-shaped kiosks that cost about $15,000 each from San Diego-based Atcom/Info. Each contains two computer screens.

US West bought smaller kiosks for the 7-Eleven stores and other sites. These units cost about $6,000.

Ad revenue, as well as customer fees, pay the bills, says Steve Dennis, manager for US West's public paid access applications. "It's a question of how the revenue models shape up, and what the (kiosk) vendors can produce," he said.

Dennis expects suppliers such as Atcom to develop lower-priced kiosks.

Atcom Chief Executive Neil Senturia expects to make a wide range of kiosks - some even designed for the back of airline seats. (Copyright Investor's Business Daily, Inc. 1997.