McDonald’s , AT&T, Offer Free Wi-Fi

Looking to super-size revenues from wireless Internet access, AT&T will offer free Wi-Fi service in 60 McDonald’s restaurants in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut during a one-month promotion.

Throughout August, customers in these locations can connect via a Wi-Fi-enabled device (laptop, mobile phone, personal digital assistant) at no charge. After that, the cost is $2.99 per day.

The launch includes McDonald’s outlets in: Manhattan, Staten Island and parts of Westchester County, N.Y.; Edison, Middletown and Tinton Falls, N.J.; and Danbury, Fairfield, and Stamford, Conn.

The companies believe the service will appeal to a broad array of users, including sales professionals and students.

For Morristown, N.J.-based AT&T, the move is the latest to boost the popularity of Wi-Fi. Last year, it helped form Cometa Networks, a joint venture with IBM that provides wireless Internet access at a variety of retail locations.

AT&T provides networking services, and, in return, Comenta makes its Wi-Fi access points, or hotspots, available to AT&T subscribers.

At McDonald’s, which has been buffeted by increased competition, adding Wi-Fi to the menu is less about the technology than it is getting customers in the door. In discussing second-quarter results, CEO Jim Cantalupo said Wi-Fi is just one idea “to expand the experience” of eating at McDonald’s. (Others include healthier foods.)

And while researchers say the majority of McDonald’s customers don’t have Wi-Fi access, that will change as the price of laptops, mobile phones and PDAs, drop and new products have chips that automatically find and connect to Wi-Fi hotspots.

According to Parks Associates, there will be as many as 2.5 million wi-fi users in the United States by the end of the year. Another researcher, the Yankee Group, predicts 72,480 “hotspots” in the U.S. by 2007.

Earlier this month, McDonald’s embarked on an initiative to activate 75 hotspots from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay, Calif. And back in March, the Oak Brook, Ill.-based chain established 10 hotspots in New York restaurants. McDonald’s has said Chicago is next.

Suzanne Keough, an AT&T spokeswoman declined to say if the company will be involved in the Chicago rollout. The McDonald’s deal will help AT&T measure consumer interest in Wi-Fi service and guide decisions about future Wi-Fi strategy, Keough said.

McDonald’s is also eyeing overseas markets, talking with investors, equipment vendors and service providers about making Wi-Fi available in thousands of its franchises in Japan and Australia.

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