Airborne Internet makes business lunch a solo affair

The Czech Republic is spending big bucks to keep pace on the information superhighway. The latest example: Plans announced by Cesky Telecom last week to invest .5 million dollars to expand its high-speed ADSL Internet service to 98 percent of the country. Here in Prague, technology is in the air - literally. More and more hotels, cafes and restaurants now offer wireless Internet connections, and plans for a city-wide network have been discussed.

More than half of all Czechs now use the Internet at least once a week and usage has increased significantly in the past three years, according to a recent study by the Czech Statistical Office. The same survey says about 20 to 25 percent of Czechs who do use the Internet use it to do work while they're away from the office.

A growing number Wi-Fi or "wireless fidelity" networks available to Czechs makes it easier for them to do their jobs in unconventional places. Max Munson, owner of Jama: The Hollow, says his bar and restaurant was the first in Prague to offer free Wi-Fi and that it has since helped change the meaning of the term "business lunch."

"I can think of over 20 businesspeople right now who have thanked me for having Wi-Fi here. They can come in and a business lunch is no longer a lunch with other people of their company, or a business meeting. A business lunch can be a businessman with his laptop; where he can sit down, have a nice hot meal, not have to sit at his desk but still not lose more than a couple of minutes of work time."

More computers sold today come equipped with wireless networking capabilities. The marketing director of Czechs On Line, Robert Fridrich, says this is driving up interest in Wi-Fi service.

"It's grown pretty much parallel to the hardware that is available out there on the market. The more laptops that have been sold with Wi-Fi possibilities, the more demand that that's reflected in the market. So, for example, if you go out to the store right now it's pretty hard to find a laptop that doesn't have a Wi-Fi connection capability. This means that, all of the sudden, you have this growth in the market of people that would like to use Wi-Fi. It's started to become cheaper and started to become a standard add-on in hardware, in which case the demand has also paralleled that."

According to the online wireless internet directory J-I-Wire dot com, 246 Wi-Fi access points are available throughout the Czech Republic - putting it well ahead of most of Eastern Europe. Poland has about half that number, neighboring Slovakia only 28, and nearby Ukraine has just one hotspot for each day of the week.

Many Western European nations, however, have thousands of Wi-Fi access points. Just north of Prague, Germany has more than 10,000.

Here in the Czech Republic, Max Munson says that the service has caught on after initial skepticism.

"At first a lot of people didn't know what it was. No one on the staff knew what Wi-Fi, or 'wee-fee' as they call it in Czech, was. So they had to ask. At the beginning we saw a trickle of laptops come in - maybe one every two days. Then it got better, more frequent, to maybe one a day. Now you can come in here at three o'clock and sometimes you'll see seven laptops set up."

Robert Fridrich believes that hotels, cafes and restaurants such as Jama that offer free Wi-Fi will soon be the majority.

"This has grown dramatically over the last three years because the price of the hardware has gone down and especially because the price of the access has gone down. What's happened over the last year is that cafes, restaurants and so on have started providing this basically as a benefit or bonus to their customers; but very, very quickly what you'll see is that this will become a standard."

While Wi-Fi may or may not be on the menu for Prague's eateries, don't expect a city-wide network any time soon. Late last year City Hall petitioned the Ministry of Information Technology for .1 million dollars to set up a wireless service that everyone in Prague could use. The bid caused an uproar among telecommunications providers, who said such a plan would undermine competition and violate European Union regulations.

The ministry agreed, according to spokeswoman Klara Volna.

"We didn't give any money to Prague city to support this project because we just couldn't. The goal of our grant is to support small villages where you just do not have any infrastructure at the moment. In Prague you have a lot of telecommunications operators."