Need to get online easily and cheaply with your laptop while waiting at airports, meetings or on long flights? Wish you could call several people nationwide instantaneously, even when cell phone calls can't connect?
These and other enhancements now are possible, thanks to three recent technological advances that are helping road warriors stay connected.
Progress in wireless Internet access, through so-called Wi-Fi technology, is enabling business travelers to access e-mail with laptops or hand-held devices at major airports, hotels, restaurants and other public venues. Even some workplaces are installing the service, enabling meeting participants to stay online while conducting business.
Push-to-talk phones, providing walkie-talkie-like service with nationwide access, allow travelers to reach several people coast-to-coast simultaneously in less than a second. They also serve as convenient backups when cell phone calls can't get through. Competition is heating up, as Nextel Communications Inc.'s dominance in this field is being challenged by Verizon Wireless and other telecom giants.
And breakthroughs in in-flight text messaging are allowing passengers to stay online, at low cost, for an entire flight. United and Continental airlines are offering such services, with more carriers to follow.
Such advances bring closer the promise of travelers staying connected 24/7.
The most prominent and fastest growing of these advances is Wi-Fi, which offers inexpensive Internet access at venues frequented by travelers.
Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity, consists of a small transmitter that radiates high-speed Internet connections as much as 300 feet via radio waves. Newer laptops automatically detect Wi-Fi enabled areas, called "hot spots." Others easily can be made to do so by inserting a wireless card.
Thus, people with Wi-Fi enabled laptops or personal digital assistants are just a few clicks away from being online. Hot spots increasingly are found in hotels, coffeehouses and airline VIP lounges, as well as city parks, college campuses and restaurants. The Marriott, Omni, Hyatt, Four Seasons, Fairmont, Sheraton, W, Westin and Wyndham hotel chains also offer Wi-Fi at some or all of their properties. Hot spots can be found in the international terminal and terminals 7 and 8 at Los Angeles International Airport, in dozens of Starbucks coffee shops across Los Angeles, in several Borders bookstores and throughout the USC campus, to name a few of many local venues. Companies are quickly announcing plans to install additional hot spots in trains, planes and ferries -- even in recreational-vehicle parks and gas stations.
But despite this rush to create hot spots -- and huge capital outlays for Wi-Fi equipment by Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., AT&T Corp. and other high-tech titans -- experts say it will be at least several years before hot spots are common. Until then, finding them may be hit or miss.
Excluding airline clubs and frequent-flier lounges, only about a dozen airports in the United States -- the global leader in Wi-Fi rollout -- have a hot spot, and few hotels charging less than $75 a night offer Wi-Fi to guests. (Visit www.wifinder.com or www.wifi411.com for hot spot locations.) However, with time Wi-Fi will be pervasive, experts agree. William Clark, a principal at technology research firm Gartner Inc., estimates there will be 28,680 public hot spots in North America and 71,079 worldwide by year's end, and those numbers will double in five years.
Fueling the growth: Wi-Fi is cheap, and getting cheaper. Many hot spots already are available free because of rising competition. The most widely deployed Wi-Fi access card -- the 802.11b, a saltine-thin device that slips into a laptop -- sells for about $45, down from $100 earlier this year.
Most technologies evolve sporadically, with varying degrees of awareness and acceptance. Wi-Fi, in contrast, has achieved global recognition rapidly and its user base is mushrooming. John Yunker, an analyst at Pyramid Research, anticipates the number of worldwide Wi-Fi users to soar from 9 million presently to more than 700 million by 2008.
Yunker expects hotels to lead the Wi-Fi charge over the next year, followed by fast-food restaurants and specialty locations such as entertainment venues, truck stops and bookstores. Only about 1,000 hotels worldwide offered Wi-Fi at the start of this year. That figure will climb to 25,000 by 2007, he predicted.
Airports worldwide have been slower than hotels to establish hot spots. But there too change is occurring.
"For the jet-setting crowd, you should, in a couple of years, be able to walk into an international airport anywhere in the world and expect to get on Wi-Fi," Gartner's Clark said.
Companies increasingly are creating hot spots for employees, aware that business travel doesn't necessarily mean leaving the country or even leaving town.