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Taco Bell will add free Wi-Fi and entertainment systems to its 5,600 US stores: I've been wondering for years, as loyal readers know, why McDonald's was the only of the large quick-service restaurants to do a full-chain adoption of Wi-Fi. The system will be part of adding damned television sets to the "dining rooms." Because if there's one thing better than eating a taco comprised of the cheapest possible ingredients, it's having programming and advertising blaring at you at all possible moments.
I also know there's a cost involved in all this, but the rollout will take four years. Which means that when complete in 2015, McDonald's will have had a full-chain US deployment for something like 7 or 8 years longer.
Cablevision's member-only Optimum WiFi service now offers up to 15 Mpbs down and 4 Mbps up: The network is free to Cablevision's broadband subscribers, and restricted to them, although the firm also allows some roaming from other cable providers' customers, and has free and open hotspots here and there.
The company tells me it has 10,000s of access points in place across its New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut markets, along with 7,000 hotspots in business locations that are Cablevision customers. Over 500,000 Cablevision customers have used the network so far.
Wi-Fi networks, even at 802.11g speeds, can easily handle 15 Mbps over short distances. With 802.11n, 15 Mbps should be achievable over longer ranges.
Starbucks Digital Network adds The Economist, ESPN site, Marvel, and Mediabistro: It's an interesting potpourri of additions to the free content you can access on Starbucks in-store Wi-Fi network. Starbucks took its network entirely free without time limits last year, and started up the SDN. I certainly commend them for including The Economist, which has a pricey but reasonable annual fee for digital or print/digital access. (I write regularly for The Economist's Babbage blog, which you can read at no cost anywhere.)
As a comics fan, I may wind up spending too much time reading through the digital library, which the press release says is available without restrictions starting 23 April 2011. 'Nuff said.
Starbucks has quietly amassed a fairly huge array of publications and resources, including the New York Times (via its special eReader edition), WSJ.com, USA Today, and Rodale fitness and health titles.
Coffee Culture's cents-less argument: I sympathize with Yvonne Johnston, the owner of Cofee Culture in London, Ontario, Canada. She is tired of table campers who occupy a four-top, blocking other customers, and have the temerity to bring in coffee from another shop and not make a purchase while using the free Wi-Fi.
I sympathize because I've been writing stories about such concerns for at least seven years, if not longer. But her argument is unique. She's telling customers that she can't afford the power, and she tells patrons they can't use the outlets.
She says she knows her hydro (Canadian for power, even when it's nuclear or otherwise) bills keep rising, but I'm afraid she hasn't done the math. A large, modern 90-watt laptop drawing full power consumes 1/10th of a kilowatt-hour (kWh). Toronto Hydro says its time-of-use pricing ranges from 5 to 10 Canadian cents per kWh.
A laptop user whose machine is pulling the full draw for battery charging or active use thus costs her one-half to one Cdn cent per hour of use. Given what I can tell of her shop's size, even 12 hours a day with 10 laptops in use should cost her no more than a Looney a day. More likely it's less than 25¢.
While her electrical argument doesn't hold water (and we shouldn't mix electricity with water), her business one is perfectly sensible. She needs customers who treat her shop like a shop, and not a library. She needs customers more respectful of the notion that taking a table for four and using it for hours on end takes real dollars—many tens of dollars of a day—out of her pocket.
I've heard all manner of approaches to stop table camping. Signs, barista enforcement (employees don't love that much), turning off the Wi-Fi during busy hours or on weekends, and so forth. What it amounts to, unfortunately, is that some subset of people will always do what's convenient to them rather than to the venue in which they plop themselves. They won't be shamed. You have to cut them off.
Starbucks lacks this problem because the vast majority of its customers pass through, and in busy areas it tends to have a greater density of store locations or more seating in stores.
Ms Johnston might revise her sign. Drop the hydro argument. Instead: "We don't allow use of the hydro because we find we cannot keep in business and provide power, too."
Boingo Wireless's new client software identifies and connects to free networks, too: I've been testing for several days Boingo's new Wi-Finder software, a lightweight client for Mac OS X and Windows that identifies and can automatically connect to 325,000 paid locations in Boingo's network or hundreds of thousands free locations. The app is also available with slightly different features for Android and iOS. A subscription is not required, and it's available now at no cost. The software also includes a Wi-Fi search function.
Boingo Wireless now offers three levels of membership with the new client. A free membership allows use of the client to connect to locations that allow access without a fee. The previous pay-as-you-go and subscriber levels remain the same. Pay-as-you-go users need to provide a credit card number, and receive a week of service. The client provides details about cost before a connection is made. For subscribers, the client automatically connects to in-plan hotspots, and provides details about costs associated if you're outside a home network. For subscribers in the Americas to the unlimited plan, fees are only required outside of the Americas.
For free networks, Wi-Finder interprets any splash or terms and services screen and allows a user to accept whatever restrictions are necessary automatically, or manually agree each time. Boingo learns adds new free locations based on subscribers' experiences, thus allowing subsequent visitors to the same connection the chance to autoconnect. I used Wi-Finder on a trip by Amtrak from Seattle to Portland last week, and after "teaching" it by clicking the Agree the first time, the software appeared able to connect on demand thereafter. (Which was useful, as Amtrak's service provider doesn't appear to retain MAC addresses for reauthentication after a device is put to sleep.)
The requirement of a membership confirmed via email for free accounts allows Boingo to meet requirements in many countries for a basic level of accountability and tracking.
From the security standpoint, the client prevents accidental connections to ad hoc networks so that you won't get bit by the "Free Wi-Fi" network phenomenon, in which unconnected Windows XP systems accidentally broadcast that network name.
Boingo is mimicking and expanding on a strategy first developed by Devicescape, which offers Easy WiFi connection software for Mac OS X, Windows, Android, iOS, and Nokia platforms, and is integrated into consumer devices, including the Eye-Fi camera card. Devicescape doesn't have a reseller network, but allows its users to enter credentials at individual networks (like AT&T or BT OpenZone) or aggregators (like Boingo) and automatically log in. Devicescape also manages connections to free networks.
Prices vary with pay as you go for hourly and daily service depending on region, but start at $4.95 for 1 hour or $7.95 for 24 hours in the Americas. Boingo's monthly subscription plans start at $9.95/mo for unlimited service in the Americas and mobile/tablet plans are all $7.95/mo. Prices are higher outside the Americas and may include limits. Many bundled plans (like mobile and laptop) are also available.
Boingo carves out unlimited usage areas for service outside North America: Boingo once had a laptop Wi-Fi plan with unlimited global use, but that proved too expensive due to the cost of roaming agreements. Its revamped Global offering was set at $59/mo for up to 2,000 minutes. Today, the firm added a Europe Plus offering that provides unlimited usage at 90,000 hotspots in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for €28/mo. Another 170,000 hotspots in its network around the world are charged at €0.10 to €0.15/minute. (The plan is also available for £22.95 and £0.09 to £0.13 per minute for payment in pounds.)
Boingo's North and South American laptop plan is $10/mo for unlimited use, and a UK and Ireland combo is £15/mo for unlimited access. Boingo separately offers mobile services plans for a flat $8/mo for any hotspot in its network.
The company may run into trouble when mobile devices start allowing the simultaneous use of Wi-Fi as a client and a server, which would allow a mobile device to share a Wi-Fi hotspot connection to a laptop over Wi-Fi just as easily as mobile hotspot features in phones today allow a 3G/4G connection to be shared over Wi-Fi.
AT&T starts offering portable hotspot feature 13 February: Joining other carriers, AT&T will let you turn your smartphone into a cellular router, sharing a mobile broadband connection with "multiple" devices. While this is likely to be added to the iPhone because Verizon Wireless is launching its version of that device with portable hotspot, the only phone mentioned at launch is the HTC Inspire 4G.
AT&T is folding this into the tethering plan it already offers, but with a twist. AT&T requires its higher-volume data plan, which includes 2 GB for $25/mo ($10/additional GB), to use tethering or its hotspot offering. Tethering and mobile hotspot adds $20 per month, but now brings another 2 GB of usage, for a total pooled 4 GB per month.
Before this added bandwidth, there was a general irritation that AT&T was charging $20/mo for no additional benefit except flipping a switch. Since service is already metered (for anyone signing up or changing a smartphone plan since June 2010), this was egregious profit taking.
The revision at least creates an association between usage and the added service, and puts the cost more in line with MiFi service plans from Virgin Mobile and Verizon Wireless.
Mobile operator O2 will no longer restrict access to its UK hotspots, and plans to make a vast network: O2 has included free access at about 450 locations with some of its mobile subscription plans. Now, it's opening up its network, using advertising to subsidize it. The Register reports that free use will require giving up your phone number, too, in order to receive a text message with an activation code.
O2 said it would build out nearly double the number of locations operated by current partners, The Cloud and BT OpenZone, which is 7,500. I find it hard to imagine that it can easily find 13,000 venues (the number the Register reported) in which to offer service.
Meanwhile, rumors abound that The Cloud will be bought by the satellite television operator BSkyB to extend its reach. BSkyB uses terrestrial DSL alongside its satellite offerings. Adding Wi-Fi allows it to compete with BT, which operates the OpenZone hotspot network.
For Ars Technica, I penned this rundown of ways to stay safe on public Wi-Fi: Firesheep takes a techie sniffing tool and makes it mainstream, but there are plenty of other risks as well. Thus, I wrote this guide for Ars Technica on the best ways you can stay safe while using public Wi-Fi.
My main suggestion, as always, is a VPN: whether you rent a VPN connection from WiTopia.net or other such VPN hosts, have a corporate connection, or set up your own. Securing services is second-best, like encrypting email, and using methods to force SSL connections.
Doing nothing is no longer a reasonable option for public hotspot use unless you want a fair degree of certainty that anyone could easily spoof your identity.
Tech reporter Dwight Silverman writes from Europe of the lack of easily found free Wi-Fi: If you look hard enough in continental Europe, you can find Wi-Fi that you don't have to pay for, but it's far more of a struggle than in the US, where free Wi-Fi has flipped over in the last year or so to being a free amenity.
He didn't quite have a comedy of errors, but Dwight found that staying connected took a lot more effort, time, and money in Germany than in his travels around the US. He notes he could have dropped into McDonald's and Starbucks for some free Wi-Fi, but what's the point of going abroad to patronize businesses you have at home?
T-Mobile customers get substantially improved airport access, plus ferries: A new agreement between Boingo Wireless and T-Mobile gives T-Mobile's subscribers a lot more access in transit. T-Mobile adds 53 Boingo Wireless airport locations; Boingo is the largest North American Wi-Fi airport operator.
T-Mobile users can now also surf on the Washington State Ferry system at no additional cost. For the tens of thousands of daily ferry commuters--WSF handles over 50 percent of the country's daily ferry trips--T-Mobile just became a lot more attractive.
Boingo gets a little bit in exchange: its subscribers can use T-Mobile's airline club lounge and hotel locations. T-Mobile–operated airports were previously included in roaming.
I went to try out the network today in a nearby Starbucks to little luck: Your faithful WNN reporter likes to test the dog food offered by companies he writes about, and so I set out this Saturday to visit a Starbucks nearest my home (reportedly the second busiest in the United States) to try out the new Starbucks Digital Network (SDN). The results were poor.
The store has no branding for the service yet. I used my iPhone to try to bring up a launch page; no luck. I checked, and I was on the AT&T network, and a deep technical detail on the phone indicated that it was a Starbucks node. I visited Starbucks.com, and there was a movie on the home page explaining SDN, but no links to content.
Finally, I searched Google for references to see if someone had slipped out a URL. TechCrunch had a screen capture with a visible address. I typed it in (quite long), and was redirected to m.starbucks.yahoo.com—Yahoo is the back-end operator of this effort. (Visit that address outside a store, and you get an error page: "It looks like you’re trying to connect to the Starbucks Digital Network in partnership with Yahoo!. You can only do this when you’re connected to Wi-Fi at company-owned Starbucks locations in the United States.")
The page that came up was clearly not designed to be displayed on an iPhone. It's possible there's a custom page that should have been shown. I entered starbucks.yahoo.com to see if a better redirect would occur, but I was pushed back to "m." A few top-level items are promoted, although a Yahoo search banner dominates the top. Below that, a free iTunes download, a promo clip for Waiting for Superman, and something else I cannot now recall.
I tapped a banner for News way at the bottom (I suspect that's due to the wrong mobile UI being presented), and very very slowly, a page with links to the New York Times Web app, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications appeared. I tapped, waited, tapped, and finally checked other sites over Wi-Fi. Clearly, the network was overwhelmed—there were an ocean of laptops in the store.
That's not great for a rollout. Staff needs to be trained. Table tents or posters should be up. The splash page should work. Bandwidth should not be so scarce. It might have been a glitch, but a fairly glaring set of them.
Update: Chris Wichura sent in a photo of the flyer on the table in a Starbucks he went into. No URL. Splash screen didn't work for him, either, it sounds like.
AT&T released its Q3 2010 usage statistics for the company's US Wi-Fi hotspot network: 107m connections were made in the latest quarter across 23,000 US hotspots operated by AT&T. This is more than all of 2009 (86m sessions), and a total of 228m for the first three quarters of 2010.
That growth is fueled by several factors, which I discussed 22 April 2010 in writing up the Q1 2010 statistics ("AT&T's Wi-Fi Usage Report Omits Switch to Free by Most Locations").
At that time, AT&T was looking at a quarter of free McDonald's service, along with a simplified access deal that Starbucks had put in place in December 2009. The latest quarterly report again doesn't mention a significant factor: Starbucks removing all restrictions on use, no longer requiring any card or account to access its in-store Wi-Fi; that change took place in July.
AT&T also added more iPhone users and had the first full quarter with 3G iPad owners who, with an active 3G plan (it's optional to keep it active) have free access across all AT&T paid locations.
The numbers are impressive, but it's still strange to me that AT&T leaves out positive mitigating factors that show its strength across several lines of business that lead to these huge numbers of sessions.
The company provided a nifty visualization, too, downloadable as a PDF file. (Preview below.)
Read the Wall Street Journal at no cost in a Starbucks over Wi-Fi: Starbucks first started talking about some of these ideas in...2001. Yes, the advantage of a decade on the Wi-Fi and hotspot beat is that you remember the first time this stuff came around. At that time Microsoft was a content partner, and would deliver local results in a walled garden. Times have changed, but just a little.
The Starbucks Digital Network is live, and requires a visit to a Starbucks store with a Wi-Fi capable device. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't know of any other effort that isn't quite limited—such as the movies available for rental at the Denver airport over its free network. All other location-specific, network-only content tends to be dull, like a portal with local weather reports.
The SDN gives you The Wall Street Journal for free, which otherwise costs over $100/yr. The New York Times is in on the action, with its New York Times Reader 2.0 Web app, which delivers a more interactive reading experience, akin to an iOS app. Apple will offer free videos and music. The awkwardly named Bookish Reading Club will let you read excerpts and full books in the store, too. Nick Jr. Boost, an $80/yr subscription service, is free on the SDN. Zagat's on tap, too. Other proximity-based content will be featured as well that's available for free outside of the coffeeshop's confines.
It's a clever move for Starbucks to counter its McDonald's competition, where Mickey D wants to service you quickly and send you on your way. Starbucks has peak hours of 5 am to 9 am, as I understand it, when people are inclined to move in and out fast in any case. After 9 am, the day at most stores unfolds more slowly, and lingering is a good idea.
FedEx has pulled the plug on charges at its FedEx Office outlets: These former Kinko's stores--I miss the old name--have had Wi-Fi for years, but it's been a for-fee service. Now, the delivery giant's 1,600 packing and shipping locations in the US will offer Wi-Fi at no cost; 1,000 already switched over, with the rest to come by the end of October. AT&T operates the service. It's smart: they come for the Wi-Fi, they stay for the shipping.
I couldn't recall whether the FedEx Office's chief competitor, The UPS Store, currently offered Web site. After 10 minutes on the company's site for the stores, I am still in the dark. The public relations folks at UPS told me there is no national offering. Rather, The UPS Store (formerly Mailboxes Etc) is on a franchise model, and each franchisee makes the decision. Some have, but the national office isn't tracking that.
Some restaurant chains that have a mix of company-owned and franchise-owned stores require new franchises to install Wi-Fi as a condition, while allowing old stores to remain Wi-Fi free if the owner chooses. That's part of why McDonald's didn't roll out to its entire US footprint initially.
Neither chain of shipping store is set up for people to come in and work café style, but in the many outlets of each that I've visited, there's always a little area to get something done, at least briefly.
Update: A reader points out that FedEx Office locations he's visited are set with with workstation areas that he's spent hours in. So perhaps this will be a third place to work for some people.
Very interesting story out of New York City: Cablevision and Time Warner Cable agreed to spend $10m to build out Wi-Fi in 32 city parks as part of the requirements for renewing cable franchises in the city. The country is divided into thousands of cable franchise zones, in which local bodies negotiate with cable firms to allow monopoly or limited competitive access to rights of way and other resources in exchange for typically a gross-revenue fee, public-access and government channels with budgets and facilities, and other add-ons.
While franchise boards are prohibited by law, regulation, and court decision from considering broadband and VoIP service as a condition of renewal--only the FCC can regulate broadband, and voice is a separate state regulatory domain--this is a neat twist. The NY negotiators figured out that they can require broadband to be offered.
The New York Daily News (a competitor to Cablevision-owned Newsday) reports that the service will be available for 30 minutes free each day to users, and then charged at a rate of 99 cents per day. Correction: My brain apparently couldn't cope with the fact that it's 30 minutes per month! In three 10-minute sessions, no less. That's fairly ridiculous.
Many New York parks have free Wi-Fi through various business districts and other sponsorship, such as Bryant Park.
WiFi Salon at one point had the contract to provide service in several parks, and had planned to use sponsorship as the driver. That deal with city parks ended in late 2008.
AT&T has added a second location in its outdoor hotzone pilot program: Charlotte, NC's downtown is the second area to get an AT&T hotzone designed to offload network traffic from the company's 3G network and boost performance for customers. The first such hotzone was lit up in Times Square in Manhattan; a third zone is coming to Chicago soon.
The idea of a hotzone makes perfect sense for a firm that's getting criticism for being unable to meet the data needs of subscribers in some cities and neighborhoods. Wi-Fi cells can be quite small, and have much higher capacity than cell channels, while being enormously cheaper to run, partly because there's no opportunity cost related to expensive cellular spectrum licenses.
These AT&T hotzones differ from municipal Wi-Fi efforts started in 2005 and mostly abandoned by 2007. Municipal networks were typically designed to require private investment by firms to provide indoor and outdoor network coverage to 90–95 percent of a city.
AT&T hotzones will cover outdoor areas of high traffic, and work only for customers. There's no specific municipal benefit involved, and AT&T will control its deployments entirely.
It's a smart move. AT&T could likely spend less a tenth as much in high-traffic areas to add Wi-Fi as to beef up cellular. And there's only so much spectrum available, meaning that in many areas there may be no real way to enhance the 3G data side.
This is Wi-Fi as a 3G network heat sink.
The telecom behemoth is also gigantic in giving away Wi-Fi to customers: AT&T's quarterly report on Wi-Fi usage finds the firm serving 121m sessions in the first six months of 2010; that compares to 86m sessions in all of 2009. Second quarter 2010 saw 68m sessions used, compared with 15m in the year-ago second quarter. Second quarter was also a 30-percent increase over first quarter.
That's great, but you'll note that the names McDonald's and Starbucks aren't mentioned anywhere in the press release. McDonald's and Starbucks represent about 19,000 of AT&T's "more than 20,000" locations.
In January, McDonald's opened its Wi-Fi network to everyone at no cost; previously, AT&T customers (wired, DSL, fiber, remote business, and laptop 3G) got access at no cost, and so did roaming network partners. One expects that McDonald's drove part (but not all) of the increase.
Likewise, on 1 July 2010, Starbucks shifted from its modestly complicated free two hours' offer, where you needed a Starbucks stored-value card, to unlimited free service for everyone. I expect we'll see a big jolt as a response, because it removes friction for short, casual use, as opposed to longer use in which anyone who figured it out would already have been using Starbucks' Wi-Fi at no cost.
You can't disregard other factors, however. AT&T continues to add wireless, laptop 3G, and fiber customers (although I believe DSL and landline markets are static or shrinking). Those users gain free service on subscribing. And existing users rely more on using free service as available.
The couple of million iPads that AT&T sold as part of the 3m+ worldwide totally likely are part of that jump in usage. A single iPad user could consume dozens of sessions a day, either on the AT&T free locations (with a Wi-Fi only unit or a 3G iPad without an active 3G subscription), or across AT&T's network with a 3G iPad and an active 3G data plan. (The active data plan gives you access to hotels, airports, and other otherwise for-fee locations, and some roaming locations on reciprocal networks.)
Finally, AT&T switch a few weeks ago from unlimited service plans to cheaper, limited plans for new customers or those that opt to switch away from unlimited will likely mean bargain hunters like yours truly will work harder to find free Wi-Fi instead of consuming expensive 3G juice.
Starbucks switch on July 1st to all-free service in the US leaves paltry few American users to pay at a dwindling number of fee-based destinations: Starbucks is the latest entry to the free party, deciding the Wi-Fi is an expected amenity to attract customers, rather than an exceptional service for which the coffee chain should be expected to receive some benefit.
Although free Wi-Fi took a long time to ignite, the drop in price for 3G cellular data along with cheaper smartphones and the 3G model of the iPad likely mean free will ultimately trump fee. AT&T's been a big help in that direction, both in decreasing 3G costs and in making Wi-Fi freely available to its customers.
That trend really started in 2008, when Starbucks moved to AT&T's network, and started offering limited free service with a Starbucks Card. That represented a significant expansion of AT&T hotspot network. AT&T purchased Wayport, which operated McDonald's network and well over 1,000 hotel properties and a few airports, in late 2008.
AT&T has over 32 million qualifying broadband, business, and smartphone subscribers who get free access. But with about 20,000 of AT&T 21,000 locations now free with the Starbucks transition--Starbucks 6,700 locations joining McDonald's roughly 12,000 and Barnes & Noble's 700-plus--what value does AT&T still offer?
The value is in AT&T's seamless integration on smartphones and laptops. It's in AT&T's interest to move 3G subscribers to Wi-Fi hotspots to offload use from the cell network--even when 3G users are paying by the megabyte or gigabyte. An uncongested network is worth more than the overage revenue. AT&T's experiment with a Times Square hotspot network solely for its own subscribers is part of that offload effort.
Beyond AT&T, who is left paying? There is still plenty of for-fee Wi-Fi if you look for it--or are caught in the wrong place. Most premium hotels still charge for Internet service, whether wired or Wi-Fi, while budget and mid-range hotels went free years ago. Yes: pay less for a hotel, and you get a $10-$15/night service at a luxury inn thrown in for free. (In Europe, hotels may charge remarkable amounts, such as $30 to $40 per day for access.)
It's not universal, of course. My family stayed at an Embassy Suites in Portland, Ore., a few weeks ago that wanted $10/night for Wi-Fi. I had brought my 3G iPad, and my wife and I had iPhones, so, no thank 'ee.
Convention centers and hotel conference centers also typically charge for Wi-Fi unless a conference organizer has paid truly insane amounts of money (often thousands of dollars per day for T-1-like--1.5 Mbps--access) to provide it free to attendees.
Airports used to be a reliable place in which you would have no choice but to pay for Wi-Fi unless you had a service plan, but several of the nation's largest airports have now switched to a free-with-ads model, with many second-tier but still bustling airports leading the way over the last few years. Seattle's Seatac went free in January after a holiday promotion by Google that provided free Wi-Fi at dozens of airports; Denver's been free for years.
Atlanta and some other larger airports have considered removing the fees, too, although most are trying to figure out how to pay for the cost. The biggest airports won't see an increase in passengers choosing them as a hub, but having happier passengers promotes more flying, I'm sure, as well as more spending at concessionaires who pay percentages to the airport authority.
I would imagine that all regular business travelers with the least bit of savvy have a 3G laptop modem, or rely on tethering or mobile hotspot service from a 3G phone.
Hotels saw exorbitant call, fax, and Internet fees dry up when guests began carrying cell phones and then cell data cards and 3G phones. The same pattern is likely to emerge in other venues.
Rather than give up a relationship with the customer or passenger altogether, opening up free service lets a restaurant, hotel, airport, or convention center engage with that person by providing captive portal information and advertising.
AT&T's recent switch away from unlimited iPhone and iPad plans means travelers will be more likely to want to offload data usage, and thus willing to accept advertising as a necessary component when on the road.
Starbucks is also trying to provide a specific value beyond free: this fall, when it launches its content network, you'll be able to read the Wall Street Journal for free (along with unspecified other downloads and services from other firms) when you're at a Starbucks.
In the not-too-distant future, the only place you need to pay for access will be in the friendly skies: there's little chance airborne Wi-Fi will go free, because it's the last captive venue.
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.