The Great Wi-Fi Way
There are easier ways to test a free ad-supported Wi-Fi service than lighting up 20 city blocks of midtown Manhattan. "The population density is immense and the challenge of the skyscrapers is very large," admits Cyriac Roeding, executive vice president of CBS Mobile. But in late November, CBS' billboards and New York City Transit signage at subway entrances in midtown started transmitting free Wi-Fi signals. In a six-month pilot project, CBS will test a range of content and marketing ideas to see if the model might scale to transform a massive worldwide billboard presence into a sponsored hot-zone business. "The outdoor network is an amazing asset that is supposedly non-interactive," says Roeding. "We just made it interactive."
Interactive and hyperlocal: When users log onto the Wi-Fi network, the CBS Mobile Zone splash page is keyed precisely to the specific outdoor signage that emits the signal. Billboard creative from launch sponsors like Citi and SalesGenie can be reiterated in the launch-page banner ad. Likewise, a Google map shows restaurant, entertainment and coffee shop locations in the immediate vicinity, while content partner Yelp pulls in recommendations and reviews from other New Yorkers for the merchants who probably are in eyesight. Users can connect with one another via the Ning social network and local community service. Even the CBS-owned last.fm Web radio feed on the gateway page features musical artists that are either from New York or about to tour there. Roeding, who runs the mobile effort for CBS Interactive, is marrying the presence of outdoor with the emerging ethos of mobile services: Make messages immediate and relevant down to the level of city blocks. "The whole project has more than a dozen partners involved," he says. "We are trying to bring you the most local content."
Free ad-supported Wi-Fi has struggled against technical, financial and governmental hurdles, but Google and others like MetroFi have been trying the model. Claiming the largest outdoor presence in the United States, CBS thinks it is well positioned both physically and demographically to make a splash here. Sitting high above most obstructions, "every billboard is the perfect antenna platform," says Roeding. "And they are distributed based on population density. It is perfect for Wi-Fi."
CBS may be positioning itself for even bigger things: Some local businesses are getting routers to extend the outdoor signal - perhaps giving the CBS sales staff a foot in the door, too - from the street to the counter. And the Mobile Zone project also uses "pre-WiMAX" technology, an emerging standard for very long range wireless broadband delivery that may compete with incumbent ISPs someday.
Who knows? If it's a hit on Broadway, ad-supported Wi-Fi may spin-off road shows all over the place. It'll be just like Cats.