19 December 2009

Free Wi-Fi at McDonald's - Will the latest trend in wireless Internet stick?

This is reprinted from Discovery.com from an blog posting they asked me to write for them.

As Mark Twain once remarked "(t)he reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

The same could be said of Wi-Fi. Over the last decade, efforts to provide free Wi-Fi to the general public -- usually a citywide plan -- have revved up, and then stalled, with many projects dying out completely.

But now there's a new trend with chain restaurants like McDonald's and Panera Bread offering free Wi-Fi to its patrons. Will this stick? I think yes.

Many businesses use Wi-Fi to draw potential customers in by providing way stations of connectivity for those of us who carry our “offices” in handbags and knapsacks. As we spend extended periods of time in coffee shops, diners, and now even McDonald's, we become potential buyers of whatever they’re selling.

And from the consumer’s point of view, demand for connectivity is growing. People use a phone for emails, tweets, music, way-finding, checking the weather, and gathering new and mundane information. We’ve come to expect access. Businesses are hearing the call and offering connectivity just about everywhere.

I recently flew on Virgin America Airlines, which provided me with the ultimate connectivity thrill. Virgin, along with Google and GoGo, provides free Wi-Fi during this holiday season. When it is not free, the price varies by the length of the flight, the highest price at $12.95. I would pay that amount to have connectivity. It was amazing to do Facebook in motion and from 36,000 feet. My son wrote his contacts, “I am on a plane, and I have Internet.”

Mobile providers embrace connectivity by offering “smart phones” which come with a data plan to keep one connected to the Internet. The advent of applications or “apps” is probably the biggest driving force behind user growth of the iPhone. Verizon and T-Mobile hope the Droid-enabled phones will do for them what the iPhone has done for AT&T. Just look at the commercial touting the largest 3G network in America and Verizon’s spoof of it.

“Hyperconnectivity,” as I like to call it, once the domain of a small number of people like me who are never without a device, be it a laptop or smart phone, is catching hold in the general population. My 86 year-old father wants to purchase a laptop and install Wi-Fi in his home. If my father understands that Wi-Fi provides connectivity to the Internet and wants it, mainstream America is not far behind.

But free Wi-Fi, or even expensive Wi-Fi, will never be in all places. Neither broadband nor 3G connectivity are as pervasive as either AT&T or Verizon maps portray them. Access to high speed Internet connectivity is still quite limited to urban and high-density suburban settings. Friends who live 10 miles from Amherst, Massachusetts do not have home-based broadband nor do others who live in St. Lawrence County, New York. In rural America, a fast food joint or a coffee shop offering free Wi-Fi access is few and far between. Given that 79 percent of Americans lives in a suburban or urban area, it may be a while before the other 21 percent (roughly 59 million people) enjoys the manifold benefits of ubiquitous connectivity.

And what of all of those Americans spending more time at McDonald's surfing the Web and buying more fries than they might have otherwise? I predict a new trend: obesity related to eating too much food while using a laptop at a free Wi-Fi spot. Call it digital obesity.

Glenn Strachan is an international and domestic development expert who specializes in ICT, broadband and health information systems and has traveled to 98 countries. When not Twittering (@glennstrachan) or Facebooking, he reads email on glenn@glennstrachan.com.


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