The Future of Free Wi-Fi

This is a guest post by Michael Williams, PhD, Assistant Professor of Information Systems

Michael Williams
Michael Williams, PhD

If you spend much time on the road away from your office you realize what a challenge it can be to find a reliable Internet connection for your critical tasks. Sporadic and unpredictable availability at hotels, airports, and public areas is a frustrating experience for even an occasional business traveler.

For the past few years the hope for business travelers has rested on Muni Wi-Fi. Muni Wi-Fi is a concept of creating a wireless hot-spot across an entire city. Prominent pioneers in this effort include Philadelphia, Toronto and Paris. (See here for a comprehensive list of municipal wireless networks)

Unfortunately, however, due to technical difficulties, the credit crisis, legal challenges, and a lack of will several cities have stopped adding capacity, or even cancelled these programs entirely (e.g., San Francisco and Philadelphia).

The good news is that several retail outlets have stepped up their Wi-Fi programs and begun to offer free, or nearly free, service to paying customers.

As of this fall, there are still three main types of Wi-Fi offerings from retailers:

  1. Free (no restrictions) Some retailers, such as Corner Bakery Cafe and Panera view free Wi-Fi as a means to attract and retain customers. These firms offer free Wi-Fi with no restrictions or purchase requirements.
  2. Third-party managed. A second approach outsources the networking to a third party and allows them to manage the Wi-Fi offerings. For example, Starbucks Wi-Fi network is managed by AT&T and/or T-Mobile. Historically, Starbucks customers were required to complete a separate transaction with these companies to utilize the Wi-Fi at Starbucks.This summer, however, Starbucks modified their policy to allow for “free” Wi-Fi for customers who met certain requirements.
  3. Fixed rate per hour. Finally, other retailers, like McDonalds, offer Wi-Fi for a fixed fee rate per hour.

It appears that these retailers are crafting their Wi-Fi strategy to match customer demands and match their overall business strategy. Thus, “third-place” outlets like Corner Bakery and Panera naturally see free Wi-Fi as a strategic fit, while McDonald’s is more likely to view Wi-Fi as a potential revenue stream to complement its lower-margin menu.

As we finish the summer and head back to the busy season of business travel, I suspect we will continue to find Wi-Fi moving towards more market-based offerings and less government-sponsored initiatives.

One can make serious arguments for the benefits of either but the latter seems to be the direction we are heading.

What do you think? Is government-sponsored wi-fi a thing of the past? Let us know in the comments.

Related in the GBR:

Managing Organizational Knowledge by Mark Chun, PhD, Michael Williams, PhD, and Nelson Granados, PhD

Mapping IT Resources for Successful Implementations by Alex Petrov, PhD, Rick Perrotta, BSEE, and Michael L. Williams, PhD

IT Matters: Ethics, Information Systems, and a Steel Ax by Michael Williams, PhD

Author of the article
Michael Williams, PhD, Assistant Professor of Information Systems
Michael Williams, PhD, Assistant Professor of Information Systems
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