Free Wi-Fi Wars: Google vs. Microsoft vs. Yahoo

Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are all trying to be the better Santa Claus this holiday season, offering free Wi-Fi in a variety of venues.

The motivator in all this gift giving, perhaps, is Microsoft, which in September started giving away free Wi-Fi at hotspots around the United States on one condition: You must use Bing to search the Web at least once. It's not clear where the Bing hotspots are, exactly, but there are reportedly thousands of locations involved. JiWire, a mobile advertising network that's partnering with Microsoft on the deal, told MediaPost that "the campaign has performed well above average and Microsoft plans to continue the promotion."

Google's promotion, announced today, provides free Wi-Fi at 47 airport hotspots around the United States in a partnership with Boingo Wireless. The search giant had already been giving away Wi-Fi to all passengers on Virgin America flights, and both promotions will last into January 15. Additionally, consumers can donate to a few charities when signing in, and Google will match the donations up to $250,000.

Yahoo's version gives away free Wi-Fi at Times Square in New York City. The promotion starts today and lasts one year.

Who wins? Well, obviously, you do. But I think Google takes the cake for best promotion here. As the company points out in its press release, over 100 million people will travel through the participating airports between now and January 15, according to the FAA. Google's not asking for anything in return for the free Wi-Fi, and the offer to make donations gives the company bonus "don't be evil" points.

Microsoft's mandatory Bing clause feels more self-serving, but it's also less focused. I know I'll be flying a couple times between now and January 15, but who knows if I'll stumble upon one of Microsoft's hotspots?

Yahoo takes the prize for the worst promotion of the lot. I've lived in Manhattan and avoided Times Square like the plague. It'll take a lot more than free Wi-Fi to lure me into that tourist trap.

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