About a year ago, CIO.com examined the Wi-Fi hotspot pricing strategies of retailers Starbucks, McDonald's, Borders and Panera Bread in "Free Wi-Fi: Should Retailers Offer It to Customers?"
Despite what most consumers expected—which is free and safe Wi-Fi at restaurants, hotels and airports—some businesses weren't ready to abandon Wi-Fi connectivity revenue streams. Someone has to pay for those access points and broadband Internet services, business owners reasoned.
According to a January 2009 survey of 2,700 Wi-Fi users, nearly 80 percent said that Wi-Fi should be free. As to what irritates them when they tried to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot: 50 percent said "complicated login screens," and 35 percent reported "complex payment procedures."
One of the holdouts over the years has been bookstore behemoth Barnes & Noble. This week, however, B&N reversed course and announced that Wi-Fi in its 800 U.S. stores is now free. Since 2005, B&N has relied on AT&T Wi-Fi services and charged a fee, though most of AT&T's cellular subscribers with smartphones, such as iPhone and BlackBerry users, could use B&N's Wi-Fi network for free.
With the proliferation of Wi-Fi-enabled laptops and smartphones, businesses that charge for the networking service appear woefully outdated. Both AT&T and Verizon recently announced more free Wi-Fi services. (Which is very good for the nearly 10 percent of the country unemployed and still in need of Internet connectivity. People have done some desperate and strange things for Internet connectivity.)
But for some businesses, the "free or not to free" decision isn't so simple.
For example, McDonald's, with its 15,000 Wi-Fi-enabled restaurants around the globe, still charges for connectivity (though subscribers to some national services, like AT&T, can use the network for free). And Starbucks offers both complimentary (Starbucks Card users) and paid Wi-Fi plans.
In light of Barnes & Noble's announcement, Techdirt.com pronounced "The Death of Paid Wi-Fi." Clearly, that's the direction most businesses are heading, but reports of Wi-Fi being universally free are, at this point, a bit premature.