Marketing Of Wi-Fi Hotspots Is No Free-For-All

laptop in restaurantMcDonald's, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Barnes & Noble and other retail locations across the United States could join in to provide consumers free Wi-Fi access from AT&T, according to a spokesman from the Dallas-based carrier.

AT&T announced Tuesday that qualifying LaptopConnect customers can now access more than 17,000 Wi-Fi hot spots free of charge. Some of those customers are contracted through the service provider Wayport. The service lets them stay connected to e-mail, the Internet and business applications nearly anywhere they can make a phone call. Places like Oakland International Airport in California and Kennedy International Airport in New York also join the nearly 7,000 participating Starbucks locations across the country.

While the news may sound good to LaptopConnect customers, many may not even hear about it. Today, AT&T has no plans to market or advertise online the free service, put up signs in stores, run print ads, send direct mail pieces, or develop radio or television spots, says Warner May, AT&T spokesman. "We have no plans to share at this time," he says.



The wireless carrier took heat from the media after letting the cat out of the bag earlier this month that Starbucks would drop T-Mobile Wi-Fi service in exchange for AT&T. There was no marketing around the switch, but consumers began noticing the change in landing pages to connect through the provider through an access location.

McDonald's plans to leave the marketing to AT&T, but Shannelle Armstrong, a McDonald's spokeswoman, doesn't expect the carrier to spread the word that some customers are eligible for free Wi-Fi access at any of its 9,000 locations across the country through its service provider. "I can tell you that McDonald's will not market the service," she says. "Any marketing would come from AT&T. We do not offer free Wi-Fi access."

At McDonald's, Wi-Fi access becomes available through an agreement between the service provider and carrier. McDonald's offers Wi-Fi access at about 9,000 of its 13,000 locations nationwide through the service provider Wayport, which allows patrons to roam onto hot spots. Armstrong says that only consumers with a contract through a roaming partner can access AT&T's Wi-Fi for free.

McDonald's doesn't market the service in television or radio spots, but rather through a retail merchandising strategy. Icons in designated hot spots let consumers know Wi-Fi service is available.

As for AT&T's service, qualifying LaptopConnect customers receive a pop-up message alerting them to Wi-Fi availability when in range of an AT&T hot spot. The offer is available to customers who subscribe to a DataConnect plan of $59.99 or more. AT&T Communication Manager comes with new LaptopConnect cards and is available for free at

AT&T also offers free Wi-Fi access to qualifying broadband subscribers. There are plans to expand free Wi-Fi access to additional wireless customers in the future.

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