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The New Freemium: WiFi

Free WiFi -- it's the gift that just keeps on giving, which partly explains why so many online companies are giving it to consumers this holiday season. This fall, both Google and Microsoft announced free WiFi promotions. As of today, Google is providing free WiFi on every Virgin America flight throughout the holiday season. (Google is also giving away free Wi-Fi in 47 airports across the U.S., including hubs such as Miami, Seattle, Houston and San Jose, Calif. The promotions will last through Jan. 15, 2010.)

Microsoft is teaming up with mobile ad network JiWire to provide free WiFi at airports and hotels, so long as users agree to conduct a single search on Bing. A JiWire executive tells MediaPost's own Laurie Sullivan that response has been "off the charts." eBay, meanwhile, is sponsoring free WiFi on 250 flights on Delta Airlines during the week of Thanksgiving, and WiFi users will get access to the eBay home page and an invitation to shop there.

Also as of today, Yahoo is providing free WiFi for an entire year in Times Square, to "be at the center of people's online lives," a company rep tells paidContent. The center of consumers' lives idea is also the theme of the company's ongoing $100 million ad campaign.

GigaOm's Om Malik -- who doesn't suffer fools, or foolish marketing ploys, lightly -- actually applauds the efforts. Reminding us that these services are only "free" as long "as long as you watch an ad or a promo for whichever company is sponsoring it," Malik says "the idea of free WiFi-based marketing is actually pretty smart."

With regard to Google's efforts, he says: "Given that many of the estimated 100 million travelers who will spend time in airports with Google-sponsored Wi-Fi will at some point in time encounter Google ads, the decision is more than a nice gesture. Google providing access to free Wi-Fi is kind of like publishing those free magazines littering coffeehouses. It's all about the ad revenue."

Regarding Microsoft's campaign, the Blog Herald says "it might actually achieve its purpose -- that is to make more people aware of Bing and let them try the search engine. But the question is, will this be enough to make users continue to use it once the Wi-Fi access is no longer free?"

"Who expected the search wars to open a new front involving WiFi?" remarks Greg Sterling on Search Engine Land, adding: "All these efforts are welcome but they're only temporary ... Eventually there will be ubiquitous WiFi/4G connectivity that will enable people out in the world to connect at higher speeds, hopefully for lower cost, than they can today through traditional WiFi networks."

Either way, we have to agree with Gizmodo's final analysis that "Holiday season air travel just got a little less crappy."




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