“Want Wi-Fi with that?” No, the counter help at Golden Arches won’t actually be asking that—but McDonald's has announced plans that will make it one of the leading providers of free Wi-Fi hotpots in the country. "Beginning mid-January 2010, more than 11,000 McDonald’s U.S. restaurants will offer free Wi-Fi to customers,” announced Dave Grooms, chief information officer for McDonald’s USA. Grooms added that it is all part of an effort “to ensure we're providing our customers with the best possible service, convenience and value." Previously, the going rate at a McDonalds was $2.95 for a two-hour internet-surfing session. Free trend There’s a lot more to the move than a desire to offer service, convenience, and value, indicated Jack Gold, computer industry analyst and head of J. Gold Associates in Northborough, Mass. “It’s a trend you’re going to be seeing a lot more of.” The primary reason behind the move to free Wi-Fi is competition—a lot of smaller restaurants and chains are doing it, especially the Panera Bread chain, which has nearly 1,400 outlets, Gold noted. “The handwriting is on the wall—in this economy they need to attract more and more people, and they have realized that providing Wi-Fi costs practically nothing,” Gold noted. The necessary wireless router and Internet connection probably only cost each outlet a few dollars per day, so selling a few extra cups of coffee will cover the cost, he noted. Plus, making the service free eliminates the cost of the billing infrastructure. “Also, fewer and fewer customers are willing to pay for Wi-Fi, since so many have cell phones, or iPhones, or laptops with 3G wireless cards,” Gold added. Dark side? Abuse has not proven to be a problem with restaurants offering free Wi-Fi, since anyone wanting to send out spam would prefer—and should have no trouble finding—Internet access with higher bandwidth, Gold added. Most restaurants that make the move to Wi-Fi install a basic 11-megabit unit, he said. “Yes, you could park in the parking lot all night and use it, but someone would probably notice you,” Gold said. Freedom spreading Offering free Wi-Fi has become something of a grass roots movement in certain parts of the country. Gold said that that you can find as many as 50 hotspots at any random location in San Francisco, many of them freely accessible. McDonald's figures that its 11,000 outlets with Wi-Fi account for 16 percent of all public Wi-Fi hotspots in the U.S. Still holding out, however, is Starbucks, which has about 11,000 outlets and offers Wi-Fi in about 7,000 of them. Customers who buy a $25-per-year Starbucks Gold Card get two hours of free Wi-Fi daily. Otherwise, two hours costs $3.99.
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