McDonalds Wi-Fi Will Make Users Grimace

Putting Wi-Fi into fast-food chains is sure to leave a bad taste in people's mouths. Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin explains why McDonald's will have users flipping out like a quarter-pound beef patty.

The past two weeks have offered plenty for those who like to chew the fat over the future of public Wi-Fi access. For instance, T-Mobile has cut prices (not enough, some argue) on its T-Mobile Hotspot service after discovering that dreams of windfall profits from Starbucks patrons were frothier than a Chocolate Brownie Frappucino.

Indeed, there are problems with the service today. The logoff screen, a mere popup window, is easy to miss if youre in the habit of closing your browser when youre done surfing. And despite T-Mobiles strong recommendation to use VPN software at its facilities, my Cisco VPN client becomes flakier than baklava while Im connected. But often the biggest frustration Ive had with wireless access at a Manhattan Starbucks has been, simply, finding a seat, much less one within a discus throw of an outlet.

This begs the question: If youre using a wireless connection at one of these stores, are you, in fact, a customer at that establishment? Are you obliged to leave if someone wants to sit down to preview a book or sip a latte? Or should the stores cater to you with preferential seating near outlets? At least today, Wi-Fi users are given short shrift at retail settings. Its strictly on a "first-come, first-served" basis of an unrelated product, which greatly reduces the value of the subscriptions that companies like T-Mobile are trying to drive. Imagine if you could use your cell phone only when there werent too many people listening to the radio.

One Unhappy Meal

Manhattan McDonalds locations will prove an ideal microscope for this phenomenon. The master of McNuggets is known around this town for its no-loitering signs, and sorely lacks the quiet atmosphere and ample outlets that are conducive to public Wi-Fi access. What good is offering users a free hour of wireless Internet access in a place where the seating is designed to initiate scoliosis after more than 20 minutes?

Perhaps Im being too harsh. After all, studies show that security is a big problem for wireless LANs. McDonalds locations in New York have proven adept at employing advanced security measures to keep potential intruders away from at least one valuable private resource—their restrooms.

Between crowded tables, screaming kids and uncomfortable seating, Wi-Fi access at McDonalds will be, for most users, as rotten as a McSalad thats been left out too long. If technology and telecom giants want to bring Wi-Fi into the mainstream, they will need to ensure that their partners welcome users with more than just a hot-spot sticker on the front door.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.