Starbucks CEO tells Wired conference the chain will offer unlimited free Wi-Fi in all its US stores starting 1 July 2010: This isn't surprising, given that Starbucks is now in direct competition with a facet of McDonald's business. McDonald's switched from a paid service to free in January 2010, while Starbucks overhauled its free-with-regular-purchase option a month earlier. As with current Wi-Fi, company-owned stores are the ones covered by the announcement; that's about 6,700 now.
With Starbucks switching to free, roughly 20,000 of AT&T's 21,000-plus hotspot locations in the United States are now fee-free. AT&T also runs free Barnes & Noble's network, as well as operating the for-fee service in a few airports, and a number of hotel properties.
When Starbucks announced it would move to AT&T from T-Mobile as its service provider for in-store Wi-Fi in February 2008 (see "Starbucks Switches to AT&T, the Next Day"), it paired two continuous hours of free service each day with its stored-value card. You had to put an initial balance on the card of $5 or more to gain 30 days' access. Each purchase or additional value started a new 30-day clock.
In December 2009, Starbucks revised its card program, and then revised it again. It initially switched to some confusing new levels of service, and required five purchases or value adds by customers new to the card to activate Wi-Fi service, and stuck with its plan of 30 days for each card action. (Older card users were grandfathered, but still had to make regular purchases.)
After piles of complaints, however, Starbucks simplified the offering. Get a Starbucks Card, register it, and put $5 or more on it, and you get two hours of service a day forever.
(AT&T customers, by the way, have free unlimited Wi-Fi service at Starbucks and other typically paid locations as part of DSL, fiber, business, smartphone, and laptop service plans, and have since 2008.)
This latest change removes even the card (and associated login) barrier. You will have to click through an accept screen to gain access.
Along with free Wi-Fi, Starbucks will also launch free content this fall from partners in a Starbucks Digital Network. Yahoo will have some privileged position in this network. The initial launch includes free access to the Wall Street Journal, and "uniquely valuable customer experience" (err...they're marketing to us?) from Apple's iTunes, The New York Times, Zagat, USA Today, and Patch.
I wrote the scoop back on 30 May 2001 when Starbucks and its then-partner MobileStar turned on Wi-Fi at one of the first locations in the US ("Wired but wireless," in the Seattle Weekly). The Starbucks story still has legs.