Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Starbucks offers free WiFinally

Starbucks has finally decided to offer free wi-fi in all of its stores. Competition with McDonald's is cited as one of the major reasons, but so too is competition from independent coffee shops.

When WiFi first started appearing in cafes, shop owners had some difficult decisions to make. The service was somewhat expensive and more importantly, it could change the vibe of a shop, perhaps even cutting into revenues as some customers would tie up tables for hours while nursing a single drink. In extreme cases, some "customers" brought their coffee from chain shops to the independents, taking advantage of the signal while doing nothing to support the shop. Shops that offered WiFi risked being taken over by freeloaders, but shops that did not risked losing customers who really wanted to connect or get work done in the cafes. In the early days, many implemented minimum-purchase, maximum-time, or off-peak hour policies. Fees were charged not only to offset the costs (they used to be high), but also to manage the use of tables.

As I have visited a lot of coffee shops -- and sent my students out to even more -- it has become apparent that WiFi etiquette has improved, so that posted rules are now the exception and fees are not charged. For Starbucks, however, the WiFi signal became a profit center. Fees were extraordinarily high for occasional users, though monthly plans made them somewhat more reasonable for very regular customers. The big announcement from Starbucks simply brings the coffee giant into line with what has become standard practice at most independent shops.

Now I am hoping that hotels will follow suit. I find free WiFi at independent hotels (even in developing countries) and in lower-cost chains. The more expensive the hotel, the more likely the WiFi will be an added cost and a huge hassle.

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