Sarah Michaud's ears perked up during an apartment tour in Arlington last winter. Free high-speed Internet access? She had never seen that amenity advertised -- in fact, she'd never heard of it before. But it was true: The Metropolitan at Pentagon Row, a one-year-old building, includes broadband Internet connections in all units as part of the rent. Fast Internet access was one of the deciding factors in her signing a lease, with her boyfriend, for an $1,880-a month one-bedroom apartment. "It justified the price," said Michaud, 29, director of print and online communications at Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Center. "It's worth it to get [online] for free and when it's high speed."
Internet access is the latest hot amenity, around Washington and the country. Some buildings, like Michaud's, wire the access in and don't charge extra. Some buildings buy Internet services at a bulk rate or install scattered WiFi "hot spots," then offer them to residents, usually at a discount. Other properties simply market certain providers' services. A smaller number offer building-wide WiFi access for a fee.
"It's no longer being done to be better than the other guy, but to keep up with the other guy," said David Cardwell, vice president of capital markets and technology at the National Multi Housing Council.
When naval officer David Fry, 27, returned to his unit in the Metropolitan at Pentagon Row after a tour of duty in Iraq, he was a little disappointed. He had signed a contract with cable Internet provider Comcast before he left -- and returned to find that the building had begun offering Verizon's DSL access for free.
Fry said Verizon DSL worked well for him in Seattle a couple of years ago. "It was a little slower than [cable] broadband but pretty reliable," he said when he learned of the offer. "If it's free, then I [will] switch."
The Metropolitan at Pentagon Row and the Metropolitan of Fairfax, both owned by KSI developers, are the first KSI properties built pre-wired. (At the Fairfax property, residents who subscribe pay a discounted rate.)
KSI buys bulk DSL service on behalf of its residents from Verizon Avenue -- the division of Verizon that handles multifamily buildings.
"We have more apartments contracted in the mid-Atlantic region than any other region," Verizon Avenue business development director Dan O'Connell said. He said the company estimates its partnerships in the District and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs have a potential customer base of more than 100,000 units.
Over the next 10 years, KSI expects to build 4,000 apartment units in the Washington area, including eight high-rises in Pentagon City -- all with discount Internet service, said Karen Kossow, assistant vice president of sales and marketing.
She said the arrangement makes the property more profitable. "It helps keep the buildings occupied. Ultimately, if your occupancies are high, you're going to be able to raise your rents," Kossow said, adding, "We pass the savings on to our customers. "
Southern Management Corp., based in Vienna, is taking a different networking route: It provides its own Internet service and offers it free to residents of its high-end properties. These include the Atrium and Standard buildings in Baltimore and the Palisades in Bethesda.
"The savings of provisioning free bulk Internet services in-house is tremendous as compared to offering bulk Internet through third-party providers. Lower costs can be extended to the resident," said Ronnie Frank, SMC's director of business management.
Comcast's high-speed cable Internet service is popular in individual apartments throughout the region, but only a handful of area properties offer it to all their residents. That's because "the occupancy rate in the region is so high," Comcast spokesman Jim Gordon said. "Oftentimes, it's just that building owners are not that motivated to [get] into a bulk arrangement. The apartment complexes have found it easier to make sure the wiring is there and let the residents choose [the provider]."
Meanwhile, building-wide WiFi -- wireless connectivity -- has piqued the interest of a few local property managers. One is Oakwood Worldwide, which operates apartment buildings and short-term rentals for business travelers. It offers the amenity through broadband provider Wayport at 14 U.S. locations, including Falls Church and Gaithersburg.
WiFi-enabled properties are essentially giant hot spots. So, for a $30 monthly fee, residents at Oakwood properties can stay connected as they roam through the pool area, tennis courts and friends' units with their laptops.
"They're able to sit and do their laundry and surf the Internet. They can turn downtime into productive time," said Larry McClements, project manager of Oakwood technology services.
Oakwood's atypical clientele may have prompted the company to try ubiquitous WiFi, noted Cardwell of the National Multi Housing Council.
"Oakwood kind of caters to the corporate and the mobile executive market . . . and the demand for high-speed Internet access tends to be strong among these residents," Cardwell said.
About 23 percent of long-term residents in Gaithersburg, and 30 percent in Falls Church, sign up for the Internet service, according to Oakwood.
WiFi does have its limits. When a building's structure contains a lot of metal, or a resident's room is covered with mirrors, signal transmission becomes spotty. Floor-to-floor WiFi brings security and reliability risks, too, Cardwell said. It's critical for subscribers to maintain strong security at their own PC level, and for the building owners to maintain firewall and identity security at the network level.
One place WiFi is especially attractive is in historic districts, where wires of any type can be unsightly. Christopher Swanson, co-owner of Evolve Property Management, banded with local WiFi company DC Access for his Capitol Hill buildings: the Barbara, the Marday, the Pierce School Lofts and the Pierce School Annex.
"We have a historically accurate building. It's not historically accurate to have cables running down the hallways," he said. "Or, you gotta run it on the outside of the building and, boy, that looks really, really terrible."
The WiFi access points and necessary wires -- installed two years ago -- are mostly invisible to residents, hidden in old chaseways, closets or incinerators. A small antenna is placed in back and out of sight, maintaining the facade's curb appeal. Residents pay their online bills directly to DC Access -- at a discount rate negotiated between DC Access and Swanson.
DC Access has about a 25 percent penetration rate in the 11 properties it services, according to DC Access co-founder Martha Huizenga. The company can either make an entire building wireless, similar to the Oakwood setup, or service an individual unit. For the latter, the company must get permission from the building owner to attach an antenna.
"We find that most property owners agree," Huizenga said. "On occasion, we will have a single resident order service, and through that contact with the owner, we eventually make the entire building wireless."
Since the WiFi company is small, technicians come to take care of any service problems within minutes, according to residents.
"When I upgraded, they had to change something on my computer and they installed a wireless card to enhance the performance," said Laurie Blanton, 30, a software company technical writer and DC Access customer.
She works from home at Lincoln Towers apartments, near Eastern Market in Southeast Washington. It's a completely wireless communications environment, besides having WiFi computer access, she has chosen to do without a landline phone and use her cell phone. And it all works. "For my job, it's absolutely necessary that I have a fast and stable Internet connection from home," Blanton said.