Google’s Gift: Free Airport Wi-Fi

Google is teaming with several wireless vendors to offer free Wi-Fi in 47 airports during the holiday season in an effort to bring more tinsel, and less trauma, to holiday travel.

The gift comes in partnership with Boingo Wireless, Advanced Wireless Group and Airport Marketing Income, all of whom are joining Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) in providing free Wi-Fi through Jan. 15 in major airports across the country.

“We’re very happy to extend our holiday Wi-Fi gift to the millions of people who will spend time in airports over the next few months,” Marissa Mayer, vice president of search and user experience at Google, said in a blog post. “We know that this is a very hectic travel season for people, and we hope that free Wi-Fi will make both traveling and connecting with friends and family a little bit easier.”

Between now and Jan. 15, about 100 million people are expected to pass through the airports participating in the service, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, Google explained. Those travelers will experience an average wait of 70 minutes once they pass through security.

“Not surprisingly, having an Internet connection during this time can make a difference,” Mayer said. “A recent study conducted by the Wi-Fi Alliance reported that 50 percent of business travelers take red-eye flights in order to be ‘reachable’ during business hours, and an overwhelming 82 percent said that being connected through Wi-Fi would help solve that problem.”

Google’s offer comes as Wi-Fi is fast becoming an integral piece of the complex mobile ecosystem. Consumers often cite Wi-Fi as a must-have feature when considering smartphone purchases, while wireless networks use the technology both as a way to offload traffic from their overtaxed networks and as a way to make more money through mobile devices such as netbooks and multiple hot-spot gadgets called MiFi.

Wi-Fi is also becoming popular as a workaround for carriers that want to offer Internet telephone services and applications without having them run on their networks. For PC vendors, Wi-Fi plays a key role in laptop and netbook sales.

The free Wi-Fi service also benefits both airports and Wi-Fi vendors, according to industry participants.

“Google gets this year’s Wi-Fi Santa award for sponsoring complimentary access in dozens of airports, both to the traveler’s and airport’s benefit,” Dave Hagan, CEO of Boingo Wireless, said in a statement. “In addition to the obvious bonus holiday travelers will enjoy, sponsored access will increase overall Wi-Fi usage in the participating airports and help supplement the airport’s increasingly important non-airline incremental revenue.”

Google isn’t the only Internet company using free Wi-Fi to spread holiday cheer — and stuff its own stocking with a bit of positive PR.

Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) today announced that it will offer free Wi-Fi service for the next year in the busiest section of New York City in partnership with the Times Square Alliance.

Visitors to Times Square, where Yahoo has long maintained a prominent billboard, can log on to the service through a new portal that provides information about Times Square events and businesses, as well as local weather and news from around the world.

“Times Square has always been a neighborhood on the forefront of creativity and technology,” Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, said in a statement. “It’s among the most plugged-in, linked-up and media-saturated places on the planet. So it’s only fitting that visitors to the Crossroads of the World enjoy free Wi-Fi as the next step on Times Square’s journey to becoming a world-class 21st century public space.”

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