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Online on the go

It won't matter if you are at a restaurant or an airport, folks at e.port and other companies hope to make the Internet just a kiosk away.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 16, 1998


ORLANDO -- If the people at e.port have their way, visitors here will never be far from the Internet, even if they don't lug a laptop on their trip.

Restaurants. Hotels. Airports. Convenience stores. All are in e.port's sights for its Internet computer kiosks, which have been springing up around Orlando.

"People just need access to the Web," said Bill Leonard, e.port's vice president for technology. "It totally takes advantage of what's out there."

Each e.port kiosk has a monitor, full keyboard and easy-to-follow on-screen directions. Users can go directly to the Web to surf or access their e-mail, or they can sign on to a proprietary service, such as America Online.

A traveler simply needs a credit card or one of e.port's smart cards to sign on, at a minimum charge of $1.95 plus 25 cents per minute. At those rates, just three minutes online to check e-mail can run up a bill of $2.70.

Even with laptops, cell phones, hand-held computers and other gadgets that are available to keep people connected while traveling, e.port and a handful of competitors see a growing market for such online connections in public places.

According to experts, the market for interactive terminals in public locations ranges from $370-million to $1-billion, and analysts predict strong growth. In 1996, about 21,000 interactive kiosks were shipped in the United States. That number is expected to grow to 500,000 by 2003, according to a report by Frost & Sullivan, an international market research company.

Players in this nascent field include e.port (www.eport.net), ATCOM/INFO (www.atcominfo.com) and USA Technologies Inc. (www.usatech.com).

e.port, which calls itself the "Public Information Network," says it has 26 working kiosks in Orlando and soon will start installing kiosks in Cleveland.

Its logo is reminiscent of the old Bell symbol on phone booths, which is more than a coincidence. Company president John Bonaccorso wants Internet access to be as familiar as a pay phone.

In fact, existing pay phones may be converted to kiosks that offer more than just telephone service, said Michael E. Hayes, chief financial officer of Davel Communications Group Inc., a Tampa pay-phone company. Long term, he said, the company is looking at providing services such as faxing and Internet access at its pay-phone locations.

At e.port, Bonaccorso, whose background is in marketing, rattles off idea after idea about how his company's system can be tailored for different locations and special uses. Kiosks at the Orlando-Sanford International Airport have screen ads that appeal to tourists. Sports bars can promote a particular beer brand or sports Web sites by using the opening screen as an ad or with smart cards that allow users to go only to a particular site. A hotel can promote its services or use the kiosk as a message board for guests.

In its first venture beyond Orlando, e.port signed a deal with a convenience store chain from Cleveland to install kiosks. As a promotion, the chain will provide free Internet access to kids. Instead of earning free drinks or food for good grades, the students will get smart cards that give them access to special kid-friendly sites or ones chosen by their teachers.

While e.port started by targeting business travelers, Leonard said, leisure travelers use it almost as much. He says one California visitor spent an hour and 22 minutes online, Web surfing his way to a bill of $22.45.

The company won't give out figures on usage, average time online or income. The company leases the kiosks to businesses, and they share in the revenue. Bonaccorso says only that the company is not yet profitable.

The company began installing its kiosks last year. The Walt Disney World Dolphin hotel was its first location. The Dolphin kiosk started out with 20 users the first month and was up to 200 by September.

Beth Berriault of the Xerox Business Center at the hotel said the kiosk was installed to meet requests from customers for Internet access.

It is in the lobby so it is available 24 hours, and Berriault says it gets a lot of use, particularly at night. Customer reaction has been good, and e.port has promptly handled any technical problems, she says. Now, the Dolphin wants more kiosks.

With a meter ticking while its customers are online, e.port can't afford to subject its users to the World Wide Wait. The kiosks have either T1 or ISDN (integrated services digital network) high-speed phone connections, and one of e.port's early successes was getting Apple Computer (www.apple.com) to provide for free 30 G3 Macintosh computers and monitors for the kiosks.

"It plays into Apple's overall market strategy to be a major player in the emerging kiosk marketplace," said Don Martin, Apple's market development manager for Florida.

The kiosks give Apple visibility and an opportunity to reach Windows users who "may never have had an experience with the Macintosh," Martin said.

Kiosks may not be the answer for all of the companies competing in this market. Tom Caldwell, vice president of marketing and business development for ATCOM/INFO in San Diego, says not everyone is ready to check e-mail on a public terminal because of security concerns, including the possibility that someone might get access to private communications once the original user signs off. "That trust is not there today," he said.

So ATCOM also has outlets that people can use to plug in their own computers to access the Web and e-mail. "Kiosks haven't taken off yet," Caldwell said. "They're probably a year or two away."

ATCOM customers include telecommunications companies such as Pacific Bell and GTE, hotels and convention centers and airports. It also has placed computers in hotel rooms, though that proved to be an expensive arrangement.

"The next hot wave of Internet kiosks will be more in the pay-phone area," Caldwell said, describing kiosks that look like phone booths but are terminals.

USA Technologies offers everything from a traditional computer setup, complete with printer, to a laptop connection that allows users to connect to a data port, printer and public telephone. Another company, AVX Communications in Virginia, has kiosks offering video conferencing and games as well as Internet access.

Bonaccorso of e.port welcomes the competition. The more companies come into the field, he says, the more familiar the sight of computer kiosks will become.

e.port probably won't meet its goal of having 100 kiosks operating by year's end. And beyond Apple, it has not yet attracted the big investors it needs for expansion.

"We talk to investors all the time," Bonaccorso said. "We're too low tech for Silicon Valley, too high tech for Florida."


-- Times staff writer Eve Tahmincioglu contributed to this report which contains material from the Associated Press.

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