To get four computers online at his booth, David Phillips, CEO, NKP Medical Marketing Inc., Los Angeles, says he used to spend “a minimum” of $1,500 to $1,600 for Internet service at each of the six or seven trade shows his company attends each year. But he’s found a way to cut that cost by about 80 percent, with a DIY Internet service that mails exhibitors everything they need to get online.

Phillips found San Francisco–based Trade Show Internet while searching the Web, but with a price tag of just $299 (plus shipping) for three days of Internet service for four computers, Phillips was skeptical. “It seemed way too good to be true. The first time we used it I had the contact name of the convention center’s Internet provider ready in case there was a problem,” he says, noting that his biggest concern was that the speed of the connection wouldn’t be up to par. “We’re a national medical marketing company. We build Web sites and we have to be able to show them. The Internet is our lifeline.”

Phillips now says he had no reason to worry. In the past seven months, he has used the service at convention centers in San Diego, Las Vegas, Seattle, New York, and Atlanta and says that the Internet speed has been at least as good as what he was getting from the centers’ providers. An added benefit, he notes, is not having to wait for service personnel to turn on the connection once you arrive at your booth, which, he says, can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours.

Trade Show Internet launched in May, and according to co-founder Seth Burstein, has shipped out hundreds of its $299 plug-and-play Internet kits that include a router, a modem, an antenna, and an ethernet cable in a protective carrying case. Up to four computers can run off the system wirelessly or via cable.

A key to the company’s business model, counter to what some exhibitors have been led to believe, is that a convention center’s “exclusive” Internet service provider does not have control over all forms of Internet delivery within the building. As the company Web site explains, “The 3G network we use (1900 MHz spectrum) is licensed and controlled by the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] and is completely outside the jurisdiction of any in-house Internet provider. Anyone is free to use a mobile phone or 3G modem on public or private property without fear of intimidation of reprisal.” The company cites the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to explain the legality of its rental equipment program in a convention center or hotel setting, however it does admit that legal questions remain over connecting to the rental routers wirelessly. (Customers can connect wirelessly or via cable.) “The one gray area, pending an FCC decision, is who controls the wireless (Wi-Fi) network inside each venue (802.11 b/g/n on the 2.4 GHz spectrum),” reads the Trade Show Internet site. Burstein is “still talking to the FCC” and lawyers about the Wi-Fi issue, nevertheless the majority of customers connect to the routers wirelessly, he says.

The company offers 24-hour tech support over the phone and a 100 percent money-back guarantee. “If it doesn’t work, then you can go and get a network drop to your booth anyway and you’re not any worse for wear,” Burstein says, noting that only one customer has had major trouble connecting to the system. “They were in the annex section of the convention center that was underground with heavy cement walls,” he says.

The company began marketing itself through direct mail to exhibitors and has now has some AV companies offering the service, but the next goal is more ambitious. “Now the plan is to go after whole shows and be the preferred Internet provider,” Burstein says.