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Interesting confluence of stories yesterday about “wi-fi,” the technology that makes wireless Internet access available – either for free or for a fee – in an expanding number of places, ranging from hotels and coffee shops to airport terminals and convenience stores.

On the one hand, T-Mobile USA reporting that 450,000 customers had paid it for wireless high-speed Internet access in the last three months. This year, according to the company, “T-Mobile Hotspot users were staying online an average of 64 minutes per log-on…up from 45 minutes last year and 23 minutes in 2003. The total number of log-ons totaled 3 million in the last three months, compared with about 8 million in all of 2004.” (Some log-ons are paid, and others are free.)

At the same time, the New York Times reported that at the Victrola Café & Art in Seattle, management has had to amend its policy of offering free wi-fi access to patrons – in part because so many people were coming in with their laptops and taking up space without actually buying anything…or just the bare minimum to justify their presence.

The store originally offered the service to encourage people to spend more time there and buy more coffee and food. But it ends up that at least in some cases, all that people were spending there was time.

The solution: charge for Internet access on weekends. The result: more people are coming to the café and spending more money.

Not every retailer, according to the Times is having the same problem and reaching the same conclusions; for many retailers, offering wi-fi access is one way of competing with Starbucks, which offers it in almost all its stores.
KC's View:
Speaking as someone who spends an awful lot of time on the road, we have to say that high-speed Internet is the most important part of any trip – more important than the bed in the hotel, more important than the food we eat and the wine we drink. (Okay, maybe that’s an overstatement - but it is almost as important as the wine.) Free wireless Internet is like discovering gold…but whether or not a business charges for it is not the determining factor. Whether or not is offers wi-fi usually is.