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 Knolls, 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.