One of my stock lines for the last five years has been: "Hotspots will either be free or cost you $20 per month": I've written that line many times, and told it to many reporters. What I meant by it was that the cost of providing service would approach zero for most smaller venue operators relative to its value; that Wi-Fi would be an expected amenity, and thus required, and part of normal operating expenses; and that the quality of free service would improve to a point that free could compete against hourly charges. With hotspot advertising thrown into the mix, that can subsidize enough of the remaining costs in places where venue operators want that subsidy above additional traffic.
Simultaneously, however, the idea of spending $20 per month for unlimited access at essentially all interesting venues also seemed to me to be the right price point and something that people who regularly travel for business, even within a city, would find no problem justifying and expensing, or having their firm pay for.
The Starbucks and AT&T deal that brings free access at Starbucks stores to a wide swath of both companies' existing customers exactly proves my point, coupled with Boingo's announcement this week of finally reaching a deal with Wayport to incorporate McDonald's restaurants into Boingo's aggregated hotspot network; and the incidental inclusion of all Starbucks by year's end in the Boingo network through their existing roaming relationship with AT&T.
Regular Starbucks customers who already use their stored-value card will get two hours of free use per day for 30 days following any purchase on a card. (Before you write in about: I've now confirmed these precise details three times with Starbucks. Folks are trying to tell me a purchase every day is required and other variations; you talk to the company, you get a difference answer, you call me.) New customers, even those that don't like Starbucks's coffee, can simply make a cheap purchase of mints or something every 30 days to keep the two hours a day rolling.
For those who need more predictable access, and want airports and hotels included, the price is now $20 or $22 per month. AT&T charges $20 per month for unlimited use of their "Premier" worldwide roaming network of 70,000 locations (including the Starbucks transition, starting in second quarter 2008), about 17,000 of which are in the U.S. Boingo charges $22 per month for unlimited access to all U.S. locations or $39 a month for 100,000 locations worldwide with no metering. (AT&T's fee is just $10 per month for expanded roaming for customers covered by the free "Basic" network deal--1.5 Mbps or faster DSL and all fiber-optic customers--which includes about 16,000 U.S. locations directly contracted by or resold by AT&T. Most hotels and airports aren't included in Basic.)
There was a point not long ago where unlimited U.S. Wi-Fi hotspot access was more like $30 to $50 per month for a subset of all available networks. Boingo dropped its price a few years ago in a "promotion" to $22 per month, and then made it permanent. T-Mobile kept easing the terms of its cheaper monthly packages, ($20 to $30 per month depending on subscriber type, with a long-term commitment; $40 per month without a commitment), and increased the locations covered with airport roaming deals.
But these networks were essentially incomplete. So it's a kind of neat tying up this week, where the price of unlimited service is now about $20 per month with complete U.S. networks included; or free if you can deal with a few ads or a purchase a month or just happen to be the right kind of DSL or fiber subscriber.