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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE ULTIMATE ON-THE-ROAD
INTERNET ACCESS GUIDE


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

August 14, 2003 -- The unholy trinity of business travel--airlines, hotels and car rentals--is difficult enough for the average road warrior to manage. Now there is this other overwhelming issue: E-mail and Internet access.

The pace of business travel has become so frantic that being out of touch for even a second is almost unthinkable. Emotionally, we feel the need to have access 24/7 no matter where we are. What if there's an important E-mail and we can't get to it? What if something breaks on the net--news, a stock quote, a post on the corporate site, whatever--and we can't get on?

I could argue with this mentality, but why bother? Even if I could convince you to slow down, there are three dozen people back at the office who will never accept that you have the right to be off the grid for even a second. How dare you not answer your E-mail for a day, they'll say. Who cares if you were stuck at the airport?

So, misgivings aside, here's my current guide to staying connected virtually anywhere you are on the road. Regardless of whether you prefer wired or wireless, laptop or alternate device, here's how to get online wherever you are.

AT THE AIRPORTS
Your best bet for finding access at any airport is to head for an airline club. These oases of calm are guaranteed to offer phone lines, chairs and, more often than not, decent workspace. Here's a comparatively complete list of airport clubs. And remember, even if you're not a member, most airport clubs will grant you one-time access for a fee. Also worth keeping in mind: Priority Pass offers access to more than 400 airport clubs around the world.

An increasing number of major U.S. hub airports also have a branch of Laptop Lane, which rents fully equipped private office cubicles by the minute. At other airports, you'll find a Power Oasis, a customized power receptacle that permits you to plug in your laptop, power up your batteries and connect to the Internet. Of course, many airports have business centers where you can access a computer and other business services. There is no database of these sites, however, so check your airport's Web site before departure--or consult an airport directory when you're on the premises.

AT THE HOTEL
These are odd times for road warriors who make lodging decisions based on the availability of high-speed access. The disappearance of the first generation of high-speed providers means hotels have had to scramble to offer wired, high-speed, in-room access. Many chains now claim high-speed Web access as a "brand standard," but precious few actually deliver in every room at every property. Sadly, there isn't even a comprehensive, centralized hotel locator anywhere on the Net. The largest, GeekTools, only lists about 3,000 hotels. Expedia also maintains a database. Your next best option is to check with the high-speed access providers themselves because several have placed hotel locators on their sites. These include: STSN, Guest-Tek and Golden Tree. The bottom line, however, is depressingly simple: The only reliable way to find a wired hotel is to call around and confirm availability before you book.

Wireless Internet access (Wi-Fi) has confused the process further. Rather than focus on wiring all their rooms first, hotels have begun the willy-nilly installation of wireless "hot spots" at the same time. The Wi-Fi initiative is being driven more by finances than customer service: Intel, which is promoting its Wi-Fi-compatible Centrino product in new laptop computers, is dangling millions of dollars of advertising support to hotel chains that install hot spots. So if you're looking for hotels that offer Wi-Fi, you might as well start with the Centrino-compatible database of hot spots. Other notable hotel Wi-Fi providers that offer location finders include Wayport, Stay Online and ATT GoPort.

If you're committed to a particular hotel chain first and high-speed access second, then consult the following brand-specific hotel finders. The Hilton database offers information on Wi-Fi hot spots at its family of brands. The Marriott database offers you the option of searching for wired or wireless access at its multiple brands. And the Wyndham location finder offers a generic listing of its hotels offering high-speed access.

IN THE CITY
The day may come when wired or wireless Internet access is as ubiquitous as Starbucks and McDonald's--actually, thousands of Starbucks locations and hundreds of McDonald's restaurants have Wi-Fi hot spots--but, for now, road warriors need to rely on a patchwork of options.

The venerable Cybercafe concept remains vigorous, although they are more prevalent outside the United States. Two decent databases of currently operating locations are Cybercafes and Cybercaptive. If you're in a large city in Europe, you may find an easyInternetcafe at a major intersection, square or piazza. In the United States, however, you're most likely to find a reliable computer and an Internet connection at a branch of the Kinko's chain.

Another place for in-the-city access hides in plain site: By-the-hour rentals at the world's networks of short-term business centers and executive suites. Although these firms specialize in fully equipped "instant" branch offices, most now offer hourly rentals of personal offices to walk-up customers. Some also have cybercafes in the lobbies of their office complexes. Regus, with about 380 locations worldwide, has the most advanced hourly rental program, but you'd also be wise to check in with the services offered by HQ Global Workplaces; Worldwide Business Centres; Alliance Business Centers; and Abbey Offices, whose locations are primarily in the United Kingdom and Northern Europe. A relatively new firm called Your Office specializes in offering access to mobile professionals in Canada, the United States and Europe.

ON THE PLANE
It's the final frontier for connected business travelers: on-the-plane access to their E-mail and the Internet. Right now, useful, in-flight access is more theoretical than practical. A company called Tenzing has partnered with several leading international carriers to offer brief E-mail and SMS (short messaging system) service to some flights. Verizon, which operates the Airfone service, is retrofitting some of its seatback equipment to offer painfully slow and eye-poppingly expensive E-mail service. The most advanced version of in-flight Internet and E-mail, Connexion By Boeing offers genuine broadband access, but it's still in the ramp-up phase. The first planes equipped with the system--British Airways, Lufthansa, SAS and Japan Airlines have all signed on--will roll out in 2004.

DIAL-UP ACCESS
The road may belong to high-speed broadband and Wi-Fi soon enough, but right now a vast majority of business travelers still rely on plain-old, copper-wire, dial-up access when they travel. And that's not unwise: Anywhere there's a phone and a jack or a dataport-equipped handset, you have access. Here are the links to the worldwide access numbers offered by the major dial-up Internet Service Providers: AOL; ATT Worldnet; Earthlink; and MSN. If you're somehow caught without a number for your own ISP, you can try NetZero or Juno. Both offer a limited number of free hours of connect time and free E-mail each month. Many road warriors keep a NetZero or Juno account just for emergencies.

Several companies, most notably iPass and RoadPost, specialize in offering worldwide service especially for globetrotters. Expect to pay a high per-minute connect charge for the privilege.

WI-FI
The growth of wireless Internet--commonly called Wi-Fi--is being driven both by technological feasibility and by the desire of several major high-tech firms to sell us something new and pricey. But Wi-Fi remains hard to find--most so-called "hot spots" are not marked--and there isn't even a complete, centralized database of locations. Your best bet is to cross-check the following directories: HotSpotsList; Hotspot Locations; Wi-Fi FreeSpot; WiFinder; and the WiFi Alliance.

If you're a subscriber to one of the major commercial Wi-Fi services, then you may prefer to start your search at its proprietary site. Leading players include Boingo, T-Mobile and Wayport.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.