... and hotels respond with in-room Web connections

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

With more business people traveling than ever before, the ability to stay connected with the home office and family members while on the road has become a near necessity.

In recent years, they have checked their e-mail, worked online, and surfed the Web by using a laptop computer with a modem and a hotel room's telephone line.

As a result, hotel telephone systems have become congested. Outside lines are often unavailable to guests during peak hours; download times can be maddeningly slow; and sometimes, connections drop out altogether.

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To unclog phone lines, more and more hotels now offer unlimited in-room Internet access via high-speed connections.

"Many business travelers, as well as families, are requesting hotels with Internet access. They want to be able to stay in touch while they are away from home," says Warren Erbsen, owner/partner of Cherry Creek Travel in Denver.

Besides improving download times, high-speed Internet connections give travelers the ability to use the telephone and a laptop simultaneously in their rooms. Mr. Erbsen recently did this while staying at a hotel in Wyoming, allowing him to access his office computer in Denver and make reservations for a group traveling to Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.

Less than 10 percent of hotel rooms had high-speed Internet access in 1999, and it is estimated that more than 4 million hotel rooms, or 80 percent, will offer this service by 2002.

"Very clearly, it has become an important part of new hotel development and property remodeling," says Michael Mahoney, director of PricewaterhouseCooper's hospitality and leisure consultancy. "Hotel Internet access is becoming as common, and essential, as the ironing board, the hair dryer, and the television,"

Internet access is the second-most requested amenity (trailing voice mail) among business travelers, according to a survey this month by Hotel Interactive. Yet some hotels haven't seen guests jump on the high-speed lines.

"I think it is not widely used because people are reluctant to mess with their computers' settings," says Danny Hudson, vice president of distributed systems for Starwood Hotels. "Our approach is to make the service transparent to the guest so that nothing has to be changed on their computers."

Other hotels feel the service is catching on. "We are exceeding our expectations," says Lou Paladeau, vice president of technology business development for Marriott International. "The feedback has been positive and, generally, folks are saying they are very happy with the service because it meets three key criteria - speed, ease of use, and security."

While hotels promote the convenience, they tend to downplay the $9 to $10 charge per day. Hotels say the fee is necessary to offset the cost of making rooms high-speed ready.

"When building a new hotel, it is easy to take the connectivity up to the rooms. However, in an existing hotel, it is a significant cost to redo because every building has a different infrastructure," says Mr. Hudson of Starwood Hotels.

In an effort to lure travelers from the large chain hotels, several luxury "boutique" and independent hotels, as well as some small chains, are offering the service free. Wingate was one of the first hotel groups to offer free high-speed Internet access at every hotel, in every guest room.

In most cases, however, the least-expensive route to the Internet - if you can deal with the slower connection speed - is a modem line and the local-access number for your Internet service provider. (You can get these numbers by contacting your ISP.) You'll pay only the charge for a local call, usually anywhere from 50 cents to $1.25.

But watch out. Some hotels now charge 10 cents a minute for any call (toll free and local calls included) that exceed a preset amount of time, generally 30 minutes. Hotel executives say the fees are necessary to offset the growing number of guests who dial in and stay online for hours.

Some travelers contend that the fees are excessive. And in some cities, a local call means only the immediate neighborhood and what you think is an inexpensive call to an ISP's local-access number may prove to be a costly long-distance call.

"I recently stayed at a hotel in Cortland, New York, and used a local number that AOL gave me. That number turned out to be a toll call and cost me $20 for about 10 minutes," says John Strout, president of JSI Management Services in Van Nuys, Calif. "I don't have a lot of free time to be online. The high-speed lines will make the hotel money, but at least they'll be quick, and probably cheaper than the so-called 'local' call."

Once you have the facts about what your hotel charges, and have spoken with your ISP about local numbers, you can decide which connection method delivers the best value for you.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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