Part of my Starbucks patronage has to do with business meetings, and part of it has to do with finding a free Wi-Fi spot when there’s time to kill downtown. With two hours of free Wi-Fi a day, Starbucks is convenient and ubiquitous. To me, offering free Wi-Fi is a stroke of brilliance, especially for social media aficionados who need to connect to update something or the other.
The problem, however, is that when it comes to free Wi-Fi, Starbucks is like an oasis within a vast desert. While Wi-Fi is everywhere, 99% of the connections are locked down – a far cry from a few years ago when there was an abundance of free Wi-Fi to quickly access.
The lockdown has a lot to do with how easy it has become to lock down a wireless router (Thanks, Linksys, Belkin, D-Link, etc.!). Some of it has to do with the paranoia someone could jump onto your Wi-Fi and start downloading terabytes of porn or the entire Led Zeppelin collection. And some people worried about the bandwidth caps imposed by ISPs.
That said, the disappearance of free Wi-Fi has caused Wi-Fi to lose its mojo. Wi-Fi used to be fun, and it made getting online a breeze. Free Wi-Fi felt like being part of cooperative in which we agreed to share for the greater good – you gave a little, and you took a little, and everyone was happy.
Then, Wi-Fi got all serious on us. Municipalities rolled out Wi-Fi networks – many of them failures – by deciding they were in the Internet access business, and charging a daily/monthly fee. Toronto Hydro, for example, had grandiose plans to cover Toronto with Wi-Fi but discovered few people wanted to pay for something that offered, at best, average service. One of the few cities to really get Wi-Fi is Frederiction, which offers it at no cost.
At a time when being connected is more important and people are struggling with the economy, it’s time to bring back free Wi-Fi. If cafes, restaurants and bars are looking for a way to attract customers, free Wi-Fi could be just the ticket.
There’s nothing like giving away something for free to generate goodwill and, in the process, some business. The reality is that even though Starbucks is giving away free Wi-Fi, I usually buy something when I’m there – business Starbucks would never get without free Wi-Fi.