Airport Airwave Wars

Three of the top U.S. airlines have taken their competition to the airwaves with a race to provide high-speed (11M bit/sec) wireless LAN access to their customers in airport lounges and at terminals and gates. Currently, air travelers must content themselves with dial-up connections that provide only 56K-bit access to the Internet.

Analysts said the airport airwaves war indicates the maturity and increasing popularity of wireless LAN cards and strategic moves by the carriers to ensure that they don't forfeit a competitive, customer-service edge.

United Airlines Inc. announced plans Wednesday to roll out high-speed wireless LAN access in all domestic and select international airports. American Airlines, which first offered wireless LAN service in September 1998 in San Jose and has gradually extended the service to other airports, said Tuesday that it had extended wireless LAN access to 11 additional airports. In a related development, Delta Airlines Inc. finalized a deal announced in April with the Aerzone subsidiary of SoftNet Systems Inc. in San Francisco to provide wireless LAN access in its Crown Room lounges, with service slated to start next year.

United, based in Chicago, signed a letter of intent with Aerzone to provide high-speed wireless LAN Internet access service at gates, terminals, its Red Carpet Clubs airport lounges, first-class lounges and 1K rooms in all its domestic terminals and at an as yet to be determined number of international locations. Doug Hacker, United's executive vice president and CEO, said in a statement that the deal will "make it possible for United's customers to take advantage of the newest broadband technologies while waiting for a flight."

United said it plans to offer wireless LAN service first at its hubs in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dulles International Airport serving Washington.

American Airlines rolled out the service to gates and its Admiral Club airport lounges at another 11 airports nationwide, with MobileStar Network Corp. in Richardson, Texas, providing the service. New airports where American offers such service include JFK in New York (two clubs and gate areas), Newark Airport (clubs), San Francisco (clubs), O'Hare in Chicago (clubs) and Baltimore/Washington International Airport (gates).

All three carriers and their wireless LAN partners provide high-speed Internet access using the industry standard 802.11B protocol embraced by a growing list of notebook and laptop computer manufacturers, including Dell Computer Corp., Compaq Computer Corp. and IBM. These companies offer computers equipped with wireless LAN access cards priced below US$200, with Dell and IBM also offering built-in antennas and 802.11B modems.

Elliott Hamilton, an analyst at the Strategis Group in Washington, said the airlines' push to provide wireless LAN access for their customers shows "it's definitely proven technology, and I believe we're going to see the market increase dramatically as prices [for access cards] come down." Hamilton added that the carriers have started to roll out wireless LANs because they want to use technology "to service their customers."

C. Brian Grimm, a spokesman for the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, an industry group, said the airlines' efforts to offer wireless LAN service in airports indicates that "enough people have used the technology that they want it when they travel, and they don't want to be hamstrung" by lower-speed dial-up connections.

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