Wireless networks based on Bluetooth technology next year will begin to transform some restaurants, airports, and even shops by letting customers access information free of charge on their own portable devices.

Speakers told packed sessions at the recent Bluetooth developers conference in San Jose, California, that wireless local area networks (LANs) in public spaces will be one of the major applications of Bluetooth.

Bluetooth is a protocol for wireless communications between devices, designed for distances of 10 metres or less. It is being developed to replace wires between PCs and peripherals or portable devices such as PDAs, mobile phones, or headsets.

In-building services provided over the 721kbps Bluetooth technology may bring services similar to third-generation wireless data to many locations before 3G networks are fully deployed, according to Simon Gawne, vice president of marketing and business development at Red-M, a subsidiary of Madge Networks NV.

Red-M partners will implement Bluetooth LANs next year in offices, airports, and hotels, according to Gawne, speaking in a presentation at the conference.

The impact on businesses and consumers could be dramatic. In Bluetooth-networked shops, for example, users might be able to synchronise their shopping lists with a current map of the shop and get directions to each item, according to Daniel Kivikas, a consultant at telecommunications consultancy AU-System.

They could also make purchases by accessing internet-based payment systems on their handheld computers. Hotel guests could more easily use equipment at a business centre, such as printers, Kivikas adds.

Meanwhile, the airports, hotels, and other businesses that offer such services could become a new kind of service provider, the Local Wireless Operator or LWO.

Restaurants and hotels would be willing to offer the service as a courtesy to visitors, counting on the service as a draw to potential customers.

In an exclusive facility such as a frequent-flier lounge at an airport, Bluetooth could even allow for low-cost voice calls.

Rather than requiring customers to make calls from fixed-line phones or rack up long-distance charges on their own mobile phones, the airline could give them special rates on calls from Bluetooth handsets.