McDonald's to Offer Free Wi-Fi, Starbucks Beware?

McDonald's will offer customers free Wi-Fi come January, according to reports. Coupling Wi-Fi with its new coffee offerings, will the Golden Arches steal some green from Starbucks? Verizon says it is also now offering free Wi-Fi to some subscribers.

Not even the Dollar Menu can top this deal. Beginning in January 2010, McDonald's will offer its in-store Wi-Fi service for free, according to reporting from Wi-Fi Net News.

McDonald's currently charges $2.95 for 2 hours of Wi-Fi service, which is run by AT&T, since it bought Wayport. The free coverage will be available in McDonald's approximately 11,000 locations in the United States, as well as those in Canada that currently offer Wi-Fi.

The news comes a day after Verizon Wireless began offering free Wi-Fi service to subscribing customers in the United States, Canada and Mexico. In addition to pleasing customers, the move is seen as a way for Verizon to keep its data network nimble as more customers sign up for smartphones and data services.

In particular, following a huge marketing campaign, Verizon launched the Motorola Droid on Nov. 5 and sold 250,000 units during the first week. The Droid has been called the best Android-running device to date. AT&T led the way in making its hot spots-which reportedly number more than 24,000, versus Verizon's approximately 10,000-available to subscribers, smartphone owners and all.

The McDonald's offer, Charles King, a principal analyst with Pund-IT, told eWEEK, "indicates the degree to which Wi-Fi-based access has become so inexpensive that it can be used as a cheap promotional gimmick."

It also shows "how many people see the technology as part of their everyday work or recreational life, that they could be attracted to McDonald's restaurants because of this. When you go to a Starbucks caf??«, you tend to see far more people with their noses buried in laptops than chatting over coffee," King continued.

"Most every chain that offers fast food, which is to say, cheap commodity food, is looking for a way to get new customers, or old customers to look at them in a new way," he said.

The enormous success of the Starbucks model, according to King, points to just how much money there is to be made in coffee, and in 2009, McDonald's also introduced a line of McCaf??« espresso-based beverages.

"It's easy to make the jump of saying they have coffee, they have Wi-Fi, they're trying to steal some of Starbucks' thunder," said King.

He laughed and then added, "I'll take them more seriously when they start to get more comfortable seating. In my neighborhood, they've still got those molded-plywood seats that are ergonomically designed to be uncomfortable after 20 minutes."