Starbucks to pour unlimited free Wi-Fi here

Free Wi-Fi hasn’t caught on among Canadian bar and restaurant owners the way it has in the U.S. But it may spread if Starbucks broadens its free wireless Internet access here the way it is about to in the U.S.

Starbucks Canada said Tuesday it is negotiating with BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada to offer free Wi-Fi after coming to a similar deal with AT&T in the U.S. starting. Not only will customers be able to log on quickly with a single click starting July 1, but through a partnership with Yahoo U.S. customers will be able to buy music and other products while sipping a latte in an effort to increase revenues.

“We are working with Bell, our Wi-Fi provider in Canada, to explore plans for extending free Wi-Fi to company-operated stores in Canada,” Starbucks said in a statement. “We hope to have more news to share very soon.”

A Bell spokesman couldn’t comment on the talks.

Of the 1,037 Starbucks outlets in this country, 775 are company-owned.

As in the U.S., Starbucks has been offering up to two hours a day of free wireless Internet access to customers who pay for beverages using a registered Starbucks Card. Bell and Rogers Communications Inc. Internet subscribers also get free access by entering their personal passwords.

Seattle-based Starbucks’ move comes as competition increases from other coffee shops across the U.S and Canada.

One of them here is Second Cup Ltd., which offers unlimited Wi-Fi access at over 340 outlets.

Commercial Wi-Fi is common in the U.S. – AT&T alone is the provider to 20,000 hotspots – with those offering free access hoping it will lure customers. There are 11,000 McDonald’s in the U.S. alone with free Wi-Fi. But it is not that widespread here, where most hotspots charge a fee.

Among those that do offer free Wi-Fi in Canada are select McDonald’s locations. Some are time-limited. According to an email from Louis Payette, national media relations manager for McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada, the service has been “extremely well received by customers.” So much so the hamburger chain is considering extending wireless to more stores. However, he gave no timeline.

Just over a year ago Vex Corp., a Brazilian-based Wi-Fi marketing company, set up a Canadian division with the goal of signing within 18 months 5,000 restaurants, bars, cafes hotels and airports to offer ad-sponsored free wireless Internet.

But in January the division’s Canadian manager, Asif Khan said he’d only inked firm deals with two unnamed airports and a done a few tests with coffee chains. Khan couldn’t be reached today.

Iain Grant, a telecommunications consultant says it’s unlikely that if a successful deal with Bell is struck, free Wi-Fi in Starbucks outlets will reverse the trend here.

“The problem is people who offered free Wi-Fi here found that customers ordered one coffee and stayed the day,” he said. “That wasn’t the customer they were going for.”

There are better choices, he said. Some regional service providers offer wider Wi-Fi coverage zones, he said, although not for free. For example, Cogeco Data Services’ OneZone service covers 6 sq. km. of downtown Toronto and costs $29 a month for unlimited use. Apple iPad or iPod Touch users can get unlimited access for $5 a month.

Travellers might be interested in services like Boingo, which for US$9.95 a month gives a subscriber access to participating hotspots across North amd South America including 1,293 in Canada. A plan for smart phone users costs US$7.99 a month for unlimited hotspot access worldwide.

Wi-Fi also competes with those who get their Internet access via HSPA or EVDO wireless modems from Bell, Rogers or Telus Corp., whose coverage extends across much of the country.

Starbucks also is teaming in the U.S. with Yahoo to create the Starbucks Digital Network, a proprietary site featuring local content that can’t be accessed anywhere else. Free Wi-Fi in the U.S. comes July 1; the Starbucks Digital Network debuts this fall.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz unveiled both programs at a conference in New York City. “Free Wi-Fi is in my mind just the price of admission,” he said. “We want to create … new sources of content that you can only get at Starbucks. This is a thing that doesn’t exist in any other consumer marketplace in America.”

<pthe Starbucks Digital Network will include tools job-hunters, including tips for searching and resume-writing, according to The New York Times.

Both Schultz and CIO Stephen Gillett mentioned several times yesterday that Starbucks envisions its stores as “the third place”–a wired coffeehouse that bridges the home and the office, reported Thomas Wailgum of CIO magazine. The free Wi-Fi is just one way to attract more customers who previously might have been turned off by the somewhat complicated AT&T-based registration process and networking policies, Wailgum wrote.

Gillett and his Digital Ventures team are probably hoping that the “one click” log-in that Starbucks is touting with the free Wi-Fi will pacify customers: According to a 2009 survey of 2,700 Wi-Fi users, 50 per cent of users were irritated by “complicated login screens,” and 35 per cent reported “complex payment procedures.”

(Brennon Slattery is a reporter for PC World)

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