Free Wi-Fi, digital content coming to Starbucks July 1

Big push in mobile access necessary, CEO Howard Schultz says

Free unlimited Wi-Fi is coming to nearly 7,000 company-operated Starbucks stores in the U.S. beginning July 1, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said today.

Schultz also said that Starbucks is partnering with Yahoo! to debut the Starbucks Digital Network this fall. Starbucks customers will have free unrestricted access to various paid sites and services, such as wsj.com, as well as other free downloads Starbucks didn't detail.

Schultz revealed the Wi-Fi plans at the Disruptive by Design business conference sponsored by Wired magazine, saying the company has continued to look for new ways to improve the in-store Wi-Fi experience since he returned to Starbucks in 2008.

The free Wi-Fi was described in a short statement from Starbucks as "one-click," which likely means users will not have to go through several steps to register or pay to use the service. A spokeswoman later said the access will be "unlimited" and "simplified, one-click."

By comparison, first-time Wi-Fi users in Starbucks stores now get up to two hours free after registering, but then must purchase additional time at the rate of $3.99 for two consecutive hours. That Wi-Fi access is already free to AT&T DSL home customers and AT&T mobile customers, according to the Starbucks Web site, but the connection process requires up to nine steps.

AT&T is the Wi-Fi provider for Starbucks stores, which make up the bulk of AT&T's 20,000 hot spots nationwide. Wi-Fi access from various mobile devices, including the upcoming iPhone 4 from Apple, is considered critical to AT&T's success in providing complete service where 3G cellular access might not be sufficient. In fact, the iPhone 4, exclusive to AT&T in the U.S., will only support video calling over FaceTime from iPhone 4 to iPhone 4 using Wi-Fi.

AT&T has also announced that Wi-Fi technology has been added in Times Square to relieve network congestion in New York City, and said the strategy could be deployed elsewhere.

Starbucks is gradually exploring mobile access for its customers and announced a mobile payment system to 1,002 Starbucks inside Target stores. Users of iPhones or iPod Touch devices can pay for purchases by flashing the device over a bar code reader inside the coffee shop. The device has to be associated with a credit card.

Starbucks, which listed 6,736 company-operated stores on its Web site as of last December, isn't alone: McDonald's added free Wi-Fi to 11,500 locations earlier this year.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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