McDonald's announced that it is going to provide free Wi-Fi access starting in January 2010 at 11,000 McDonald's locations across the nation. It's about time.
Two summers ago I did a cross-country road trip with my family. It was a "working vacation" so I sat in the passenger seat pecking away on my laptop as we traversed this great nation. Every once in a while, I would need to find a Wi-Fi hotspot to check in with the real world.
I am sure there were a plethora of smaller, local establishments providing free Wi-Fi, but when you're driving 70mph down the highway those businesses are hard to locate. I needed a familiar and accessible chain. I knew that I could get a Wi-Fi connection at any of the ubiquitous Starbucks or McDonald's locations, but for a fee.
I used my handy dandy GPS to seek out Panera Bread locations. Panera Bread was one of the first to provide free Wi-Fi. They were not nearly as plentiful as the Starbucks and McDonald's establishments, but they were out there.
It is those Panera Bread locations that got my money for coffee, snacks, and the occasional meal. It was a fair quid pro quo exchange. I certainly wasn't going to stop in to Panera to check my e-mail, and then drive across the street to frequent Starbucks.
Why It's Dumb to Charge for Wi-Fi
Since AT&T bought Wayport--the provider of Wi-Fi for Starbucks and McDonald's, the Wi-Fi service at those franchises has been free for AT&T wired and wireless subscribers. But, for the rest of the people, the Wi-Fi service at McDonald's costs a minimum of $2.95 for two hours of access.
The problem with that is that nobody plans to spend two hours at McDonald's. Intrepid road warriors trotting across the country just want to check email while grabbing some lunch. They don't plan on hanging out more than 15 minutes or so. Paying $3 for that 15 minutes of time is the equivalent of paying $24 for two hours.
If used on a moderately consistent basis, it would be much cheaper to simply subscribe to a mobile broadband plan and be able to connect from anywhere you can get a wireless signal.
Why Free Wi-Fi Makes Good Sense
McDonald's is everywhere. Had McDonald's offered free Wi-Fi when I was on my cross-country travels, it would have been much more convenient for me, and would have resulted in McDonald's getting to keep more of my money. Trust me, my kids would have greatly preferred that we stop at McDonald's instead of Panera Bread.
David Coursey, one of my PC World peers, describes how his use of the free McDonald's Wi-Fi for AT&T subscribers worked in McDonald's favor. "On more than one occasion, I've landed in a McDonald's parking lot just to use their Wi-Fi. Often with an icy Coke and a hot order of the world's best fries from the drive-thru, which I'm willing to bet is just what Mickey D's hoped I'd do."
Travelers who are hungry and looking for a quick meal will choose McDonald's because they can also jump online to check traffic conditions, news headlines, or sports scores at the same time. Travelers who need a quick Internet connection to get an urgent e-mail or download a critical PowerPoint presentation will choose McDonald's because yes, they would "like some fries and a Coke with that".
Wi-Fi access has already transitioned from being a luxury that people are willing to pay for, to being a free service that sets some establishments apart and draws customers. Eventually it will simply be expected- like electricity and restrooms, but for the time being McDonald's free Wi-Fi service differentiates it from many competitors and gives people one more reason to frequent the fast food chain.
Starbucks should get onboard quick. McDonald's is already treading on Starbucks ground with the McCafé. Now I can get a gourmet, whipped-cream topped caffeinated beverage from McDonald's for half the cost of a similar drink at Starbucks, and get free Wi-Fi at the same time.
Your move, Starbucks.