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The best things in life are free

Okay, it's time to confess: I don't use public wireless Internet services. Before I'm willing and able to do so, I need to see a few changes.

Don't get me wrong; I'd love to check e-mail or get the latest wireless news while I'm away from the office. Unfortunately, my company-issued notebook is somewhat out of date, and I doubt that my good friends over in the MIS department will upgrade me to my long-desired tablet PC anytime soon.

If you can go to a restaurant or stay in a hotel where you can access a wireless connection for free, wouldn't you be inclined to go there again?
Regardless, publicly accessible wireless service is a concept that's certainly arrived. Before long, I have no doubt that I'll be able to hop online from the grocery store, the park, the mall, even while I'm getting my oil changed (hint hint, Meineke). In fact, I don't think it's unreasonable to predict that by the end of the decade, nearly every major city in the U.S. will be blanketed by wireless hot spots.

But there's one key to making this prediction a reality: it must be free. When the hot spot craze began, service providers everywhere seemed to believe that by simply hoisting up a Wi-Fi access point in a popular locale like Starbucks, users would quickly line up to pay for access in the areas they frequent. But before long, there were a half dozen service providers pushing hot spots, and if you wanted to use a Boingo hot spot when you'd already subscribed to Wayport, you had to either pay again or you were out of luck.

Fortunately, that's finally changing. McDonald's, Schlotsky's, and many other restaurants, cafes, hotels and airports throughout the U.S. have realized that free wireless access pays for itself. First, it builds customer loyalty. If you can go to a restaurant or stay in a hotel where you can access a wireless connection for free, wouldn't you be inclined to go there again? Second, customers stay longer. If you're using the net, you're much more likely to buy that sandwich or extra cup of coffee. Third, your company benefits because it doesn't have to pay for your wireless access. If IBM thinks it's a good idea, chances are your company will too.

So what's the moral of this story? These free hot spots aren't going to grow and prosper by themselves. They need the support of business users and travelers who see them as a real blessing -- consumer usage is nice, but for them, such novelties usually get old quickly. Additionally, enterprises need to let their employees know that it's OK to use these services, as long as they take the proper security precautions. If a few businesses that provide free hot spots to customers realize a return on their investments, then many more will follow suit, and suddenly mobile computing will get a lot easier.

Now, all I need to do if follow my own advice.

This column originally appeared in our exclusive e-mail, This Week. To get weekly columns from our editors in our inbox every Monday, edit your user profile and select Updates on New Site Content.

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