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Travelers face patchwork of free vs. paid Wi-Fi

Getting online while traveling has never been easier. Getting online for free is still hit-or-miss.
By JOSHUA FREED Published: April 29, 2012

Smartphone users are increasingly looking for Wi-Fi to avoid caps on cellular data plans. The number of devices that use Wi-Fi jumped 5-fold between 2006 and 2011, according to Boingo, which runs hot spots in 34 U.S. airports.

Charges for staying connected on a trip can add up fast.

A guest at the Embassy Suites near the Minneapolis airport would pay almost $5 to get online for three hours. They'd pay $8 more at the airport (It plans to add a free offering later), then another $5 to get online on board a Delta flight. Total Internet bill: $18.

San Francisco's international airport now offers a free Wi-Fi option for users willing to watch a commercial every 45 minutes. Adding the free option means the airport loses $2.5 million in revenue, but airport officials hope to keep travelers from switching to airports in nearby San Jose and Oakland, which offer free Wi-Fi.

Boingo Wireless Inc. says it's seeing a move toward hybrid setups, where airports offer free service (often with ads or slower connections) and a paid option for people who want a faster connection. Denver has both options, and the free service is enough to check email and weather.

“If you want to download a whole movie … you would be able to do it over our free basic service, but it might take you an hour or two,” says John Ackerman, the airport's chief commercial officer. It would take a few minutes using the paid service.

Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is adding free Internet access in September. The new service is run by AT&T and will pay the airport at least $750,000 a year, depending on advertising revenue.

Will Rogers offers Wi-Fi

Will Rogers World Airport offers 20 minutes of free wireless Internet service in all public areas of the terminal including, ticketing, gates, restaurants, lounges and baggage claim.


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