Starting in January 2010, US McDonald's restaurants will no longer charge for Wi-Fi: The quick-service chain has service in 11,000 of its 14,000 locations in the US, and previously charge $2.95 for two hours access. The network is operated by AT&T, originally contracted by Wayport which was acquired by the phone giant last year. Most AT&T subscribers get free access at McDonald's, Starbucks, and a few thousand other locations.
This might drive more traffic to McDonald's, which is fighting for various new kinds of customers with its specialty coffee service. Starbucks offers two hours daily of no-cost service as a reward to regular customers--a reward program that changes later this month to require several purchases before then getting the free Wi-Fi deal. (See "Starbucks Makes It Harder to Get Free Wi-Fi," 3 November 2009.)
A McDonald's executive quoted in the Wall Street Journal is clearly making a Starbucks taunt when he says, "free is free." The no-cost service starts in mid-January 2010.
Will this change the perception of the value of Wi-Fi in the US? It's hard to tell. AT&T provides its service to over 27m subscribers now, which is a decent subset of all users, and Starbucks must have millions of regular users. I pay $10/mo to Boingo Wireless for unlimited access at lots of different venues, and $10 has been more than worthwhile to avoid paying $3 or $4 or $6 a pop for access as I need it.
Google certainly gave for-fee Wi-Fi a kick in the keister by sponsoring so much free airport Wi-Fi this holiday season. That may make it hard for airports to go back to charging, but there may be more sponsorship or other models in the future. An increasing number of larger airports have moved to free service (ad supported, often), or are considering such a move. With particular ad models that require a substantial user commitment, such as watching a 30-second commercial, that may pay off airports: get 5 to 10 times the number of users, and ad revenue could cover costs, as well as be a well-received amenity that makes travel better.
Certainly, McDonald's offering free Wi-Fi puts pressure on anyone who doesn't, whether you like the chain's food or not.