McWi-Fi

It seems like a simple enough deal: Last week, fast food chain McDonald's announced it's having 6,000 of its U.S. outlets set up for Wi-Fi access . The new hot spots will let McDonald's customers link up to the Internet while they chow down, for a mere $2.95 per hour. There's nothing really new about that -- lots of Starbucks coffee joints and a few Schlotzsky's delis already offer Wi-Fi. And their food's better, too.

The subtle difference at McDonald's? Even though a third party -- Wayport Inc. -- will install and run the Wi-Fi network, McDonald's will use the same network for its own cashless payment system.

In other words, instead of paying for 6,000 pricey wireless IT projects to support cashless payment, McDonald's plans to get someone else to do the work -- and get them to pay for the privilege.

Now that's ROI.

In effect, McDonald's has cleverly turned outsourcing inside out. Instead of McDonald's paying Wayport to run its wireless networks, Wayport pays for the equipment, installs it and runs it. Then Wayport charges McDonald's customers who use the Wi-Fi network, and it splits the take with Mickey D's.

And McDonald's gives up a little piece of that revenue stream for the right to use a little piece of the wireless bandwidth for its cashless payment system.

Everybody comes out ahead. Wayport gets thousands of prime locations for its service. McDonald's offloads the work of installing and securing wireless networks and turns a cost center into a revenue stream. Customers get to check e-mail or download MP3s and pay when their Happy Meals arrive.

And the rest of us? We get a new way of looking at Wi-Fi.

For the past few years, we've been fighting Wi-Fi. Let's face it, most corporate IT people wish Wi-Fi had never been invented. We wish those cheap wireless access points cost $50,000 each, so users wouldn't buy them, sneak them in and connect them to our networks. We wish we didn't have to hunt down those unauthorized access points and fight with users to remove them.

And if we've actually adopted Wi-Fi for some applications, we still wish we didn't have to worry about Wi-Fi security, Wi-Fi compatibility and the fact that it's so hard to limit Wi-Fi's range. It's costly, time-consuming and a big pain -- all because we want to keep outsiders off our Wi-Fi networks, just as we want to keep them off our wired networks.

Now, let's say we turn that mind-set inside out, using the McDonald's model.

Suppose that instead of fighting Wi-Fi, you got paid by a Wi-Fi provider that ran a Wi-Fi network for you. What would happen then? That provider would get the hassles of buying equipment and positioning antennas and securing everything.

Your employees could use Wi-Fi through a virtual private network as part of the deal. That would wipe out any reason for them to sneak in their own cheap Wi-Fi access points -- they'd be getting better equipment for free.

And instead of trying to limit the Wi-Fi hot spot's range or hide it from outsiders, you'd want everyone to know about it. Why? Because every time an outsider accessed your Wi-Fi network, you'd make money.

A pipe dream? Maybe, maybe not. True, Wi-Fi users wish hot spots were everywhere. But not every location would be profitable enough to a Wi-Fi provider to be worth the trouble. Whether you could find a Wi-Fi provider to foot the bill, or even split the cost, depends on the market, demand and location, location, location.

But you'll never know what's possible until you start thinking creatively about Wi-Fi. And you've already got a burger-flipping clown as an example of how to turn Wi-Fi problems inside out.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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