McDonald's jumps on free WiFi bandwagon

Beginning in January, McDonald's said it plans to offer WiFi for free in all of its U.S. fast food restaurants, a move that could create a domino effect when it comes to the end of paid WiFi.

We've come to the point where free WiFi is expected. All of the major broadband providers offer free WiFi as part of a customer's subscription plan. AT&T is encouraging data offloading for iPhone and other smartphone users by offering free access and automatic authentication. Barnes & Noble this summer rolled out free service using AT&T's network, while Google is sponsoring free WiFi in airports this holiday season--a move that might be difficult to reverse.

McDonald's offers WiFi access at 11,000 restaurants and previously charged $2.95 for two hours of access. It now finds itself embroiled in a battle with Starbucks over the coffee market. The idea continues that as users stay at a place of business and surf the Internet that they'll buy more products. Barnes & Noble's service includes an ebook component whereby WiFi users, along with iPhone and BlackBerry users, are able to access 700,000 Barnes & Noble ebooks. McDonald's wants those attracted to free WiFi to try the specialty drinks it plans to begin selling by the middle of 2010.

Meanwhile, Starbucks has instituted a somewhat complex reward system whereby patrons get access to free WiFi after purchasing a certain amount of drinks. You can see the flow chart at Wi-Fi Net News. Whether Starbucks modifies its pricing remains to be seen.

With users now expecting WiFi for free, its an opportunity to get creative. While they can justify free WiFi through the sale of more products, they can also try their hand at ad-subsidized services. That idea has been much talked about over the years as the anchor for many free WiFi projects. The difference today is that nearly everyone knows what WiFi is and wants it. It has become a must-have component of smartphones. As such, we may be hitting an era where advertising isn't quite as annoying as it once was considered.--Lynnette 

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