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Google's Wireless Advertising Plans

The price of a free citywide wireless network planned for San Francisco may be increased advertising for users.

A patent application filed recently by Google details a method of pushing highly targeted advertising to users of wireless hotspots, and sharing the ad revenue with the wireless service provider.

On Wednesday a San Francisco city commission approved a bid by Google and Internet service provider EarthLink to provide free wireless access throughout the city. The Department of Telecommunications and Information Services will now begin contract negotiations with EarthLink and Google.

What makes the Google patent potentially attractive to service providers is the search giant's ability to serve up personalized ads. According to the patent, the advertising a wireless user would see is based on the "geographical location of the WAP, an operation of an entity providing the WAP, selected by the entity providing the WAP, and a profile of the WAP."

In other words, such a system would allow, for example, a bookstore in New York city to push ads for newly published novels that appeal to their local customers, or perhaps even ads that suit the shoppers buying habits as gleaned from his or her customer loyalty card profile.

Providers of wireless hotspots could also sell advertising for stores in a specific vicinity, allowing retailers who run businesses not conducive to wireless use to market themelves.

Technically the process works like this: The wireless access point directs all traffic to Google through a virtual private network. Google's servers process the information and insert the correct ads into the datastream that is sent to the end user.

The advertising could be displayed on browser's toolbars, on separate interstitial pages, or as part of the content of a Web page.

The patent states that a Web browser's appearance could also be altered to display logos or other brand information associated with the wireless access provider. It also notes that customers would be asked to agree to receive the ads in exchange for free wireless access.

According to the patent, which was filed in 2004 and published by the U.S. Patent Office in mid-March, the advertising can be refreshed and changed even when the user is not moving from Web page to Web page.

But Todd Kort, an analyst at Gartner, doesn't expect to see ads sprawled all over users' screens. He thinks the Google ad display interface will resemble Google.com, with advertising tucked into a sidebar. Kort also believes that the ads will be targeted sufficiently to make them unobtrusive.

"As long as there is that linkage with the kinds of searches people are doing, it will be tolerable," Kort said. "I'm no more anxious to see this stuff happen than you are, but it's probably going to happen, and we'll have to deal with it."

He added, "They know that people aren't clamoring for this so they better not make it too intrusive or they're going to get complaints. People might even stop using some devices if it becomes a painful experience."

Greg Sterling, principal analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence in Oakland, Calif., echoed Kort's thoughts.

"There's considerable evidence that users are either ambivalent about 'mobile advertising' or don't want it at all," Sterling said. "Companies are going to need to be cautious and much more thoughtful about mobile marketing than its online counterpart. Users are going to be much less tolerant of advertising on mobile devices that isn't opt-in or highly targeted to their interests."

Access to wireless hotspot service is sometimes offered free by businesses hoping to woo customers; hotels, for example, have been in the forefront of offering free wireless access to users. Other providers charge for the service, either by the hour, day or via a subscription plan.

The stated goal of Google's patent is to allow businesses to offer free wireless connectivity to consumers while still recouping some of the cost of providing said service.

Will the patent be put to use in San Francisco? Google isn't saying.

"At this point we aren't sure how we'll monetize this service," said Google spokeswoman Megan Quinn.

"Like many companies, we file patent apps on a variety of ideas that our employees come up with. Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services. Some don't. Prospective product announcements should not be inferred from patent applications."

"However, like Web search, our goal is to create services that satisfy the information needs of users while also creating new markets for advertisers and local businesses."