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Hotels add fax machines to room service amenities

HAVE you ever needed to send a fax to a hotel guest who is awake when the front desk is closed for the night? What about receiving a confidential document that six hotel employees have read before it is slipped under your door?

Toronto-based AlphaNet Telecom Inc. says it has solved these and a few other problems by coming up with a system known as the ``InnFax,'' which puts fax machines in hotel rooms and assigns each machine its own private telephone number.

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``The problem has been that every hotel has a human operator that interrupts the fax coming in,'' says Michael Reichmann, one of AlphaNet's founders. ``With our system, there is a second telephone line and a direct connection without using an operator.''

In addition to providing fax service, the machines can receive copies of hotel bills from the front desk and two-page summaries of the Wall Street Journal free of charge; if the fax newspapers are ordered after 5 p.m., they also include that day's closing stock-market prices.

All faxes received by or sent from hotel rooms are charged to the guest staying in that room at a rate of about $1.50 a page. AlphaNet and the hotel split the revenue.

The InnFax works from a central computer in Rochester, N.Y. All calls are directed to the 716 area code and then rerouted to the hotel room. ``The entire network is our own proprietary software,'' Mr. Reichmann says. ``We do not rely on any other company's technology.''

AlphaNet has installed fax machines in 8,500 rooms in 130 hotels, mostly in the United States, but also in Canada, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Early next month, 170 machines will be installed in a Tokyo hotel, and Reichmann says he hopes to have deals signed soon in Australia, Indonesia, and New Zealand.

``We're also looking at Europe as well as South America and elsewhere in Asia,'' says Reichmann, who is in charge of international sales as well as executive vice president of the firm. ``We're growing at the rate of one new hotel every business day.''

``The payback is pretty good,'' says Mark Andrews, manager of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia. His hotel now has an entire floor (23 rooms) with machines, and he says he is thinking of equipping another one. ``Occupancy on this floor has been higher than the other floors,'' Mr. Andrews explains.

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The Hyatt chain is AlphaNet's biggest customer, with about 4,600 machines installed as part of its Business Plan program, for which guests pay an extra $15 a night for services. Other chains using the service include the Westin, Hilton, Loews, and Fairmont hotels.

For now, AlphaNet - which has only 40 employees in its Toronto, Rochester, San Diego, and New York offices - has the market to itself, says Richard Piotrowski, an analyst with Sprott Securities Ltd. in Vancouver.

But monopolies seldom last long. Other firms that offer hotel room services such as pay-per-view movies are also looking into providing fax machines.

AlphaNet is also introducing a new product called FollowFax, which for $9.95 a month gives a subscriber a permanent fax number connected to the central computer. The subscriber can dial a toll-free number from any fax machine and retrieve stored messages. The service provides 20 faxed pages free, with each additional page charged at a rate of about 30 cents.

``There's been a lot of talk about each person having just one universal telephone number,'' Reichmann says. ``Well, this is it, a permanent private fax number, which follows you anywhere in the world.''

Competition has sprung up in the fax mailbox area. Toronto`s Delrina Corporation is a big seller of fax software for computers. It also has a system called Fax MailBox that stores faxes for subscribers for a monthly fee.

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