Google's getting more than the usual amount of attention this week for sponsoring free airport Wi-Fi during the holiday season. And rightfully so: During a long layover, no one wants to fire up their laptop and Web browser only to see a Web page demanding money for Internet access.
The free airport Wi-Fi promotion from Google is a nice gesture, but in a perfect world, it wouldn't be necessary. Airport Wi-Fi should always be free, and I'm not just saying that as a pipe dream. I think it's inevitable.
There are a few reasons for this. First, the rise of smartphones means you don't need a laptop and Wi-Fi for core tasks such as checking e-mail or surfing the Web. So while it'd be nice to jump on my computer during a layover, I can still get on Twitter, access Gmail and read an endless supply of news stories with my iPhone's 3G connection.
Then, there are 3G-enabled notebooks and netbooks to consider. I don't think expensive monthly contracts appeal to the average consumer, but for the business set, constant connectivity has its advantages. If products like the Nokia Booklet 3G take off, they'll surely cut into the business of airport Wi-Fi providers such as Boingo.
Finally, the hurried nature of airport travel, combined with the availability of in-flight Wi-Fi, makes paying for airport wireless Internet inefficient in terms of cost. If I've got a 40-minute layover ahead of a three-hour flight, and Internet access costs roughly the same for both, I'm going to choose in-flight Wi-Fi, especially because I'll have no other options in the sky.
I'm not saying there's no value at all in paid airport Wi-Fi. I've used it once to file a PC World story on deadline, after a flight, when I had no other way to get Internet connection at a reasonable time. But that's a rare circumstance that I'd rather not repeat.
The list of airports that do give away free Wi-Fi is long; but in those places where paid Wi-Fi is hanging on, the time for change is at hand. Boingo has reportedly been experimenting with ad-supported Wi-Fi, and with good results. I'd like to see that in more airports -- ahem, LAX -- even if it meant limiting the time of free Internet sessions. Google shouldn't have to play Santa Claus year-round, but we shouldn't have to pay $8 for a half hour online.