|By Michael Welber, Florida Keys Keynoter, Marathon|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 10--It used to be that an amenity at a hotel was a TV with free HBO. But nowadays, in order to compete, hotels must offer much more.
One of the latest weapons in that competitive battle in other markets is free Internet service. Now Keys hotels are beginning to consider offering it.
While residents of the Keys like to think that travelers come down to enjoy our sunny skies and warm waters, many visitors still bring their cell phones and laptops equipped with cards enabling wireless service. These people want to be able to log on to the Internet on a fast connection, not just dial up from a phone line in the room. And they want that service to be available at no additional charge.
Recently, the Marriott chain announced that it will provide free Internet access in 1,200 of its hotels. The Fairfield Inn chain will do so in 500 of its units. The Holiday Inn and Best Western chains aren't far behind.
Anticipating that other Key West lodgings will want similar service, several businesses have popped up in Key West to fill the need. While the service will be wireless, their approach is different.
Tom Mulhall of McIntosh System Solutions in Key West said he's been studying this market for 18 months. His research indicates that not only do guest expect fast Internet connections as a perk, but that it's actually cheaper for hotels to provide free service than to charge for it.
"Customers don't expect to pay $9.95 a day for something they take for granted at home," he said. "We found that it actually will cost a hotel 450 percent more to charge for service than to deliver it for nothing."
Mulhall went on to say that by the time hotels administer the network, install a system for billing, train the staff to train customers, and track usage, the package can get very expensive. He estimates, however, that a base system will cost a hotel only $5 per day.
His approach is to provide wireless where customers can bring their laptops and log on. These might be restaurant areas, poolside or lounges.
Richard Gault, who runs Florida Keys Internet Services in Key West, is ramping up his wireless service under the name of Florida Keys Wireless. His approach to installing service differs from Mulhall's.
"We plan to wire entire hotels and put small access points throughout," he said. "That way, people can use their laptop in their rooms or down at the pool, or anywhere."
Gault's system will enable hotels to either charge for it or provide it free. He bills as a percentage of usage after installation costs and provides all service and technical support in exchange.
Currently, neither company has undertaken any hotel installations, though Mulhall is installing one into a restaurant in the Upper Keys. Actually, four restaurants will be offering the service, starting with Sundowners and Mile Marker 88.
Wireless Internet service in restaurants means, of course, that surf and turf will take on a completely new meaning.
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(c) 2004, Florida Keys Keynoter, Marathon. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. MAR, IHG, CD,