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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

June 3, 2008 at 12:37 PM

Starbucks Wi-Fi: It’s not completely free

I’m among the jillions of people who are glad that Starbucks is finally offering “free” wireless access in its stores. As I said before, it’s about time.

But you may want to think carefully before rushing in to log on …

Maybe I’m spoiled living in espressoville, the land of lattes and free Wi-Fi, but the free access that went live at Starbucks today isn’t as magnanimous as it sounds.

It’s limited to two hours. That actually seems reasonable and like a good way to keep table hogs moving along.

The thing that gives pause is Stabucks’ registration system. It requires customers to register with Starbucks to get the service. That means you are trading some personal details and entering yourself into Starbucks’ customer files in return for a few hours a day of access.

Starbucks and AT&T aren’t going to waste that valuable information. Read the fine print: By registering, you also agree to receive four e-mails (presumably selling stuff, so spam) from AT&T per year. In other words, by accepting the free Wi-Fi, you’re opting in to receiving their marketing.

It’s refreshing how explicit they are about it, so you can decide if two hours of Wi-Fi is worth four spam a year.

But Starbucks and AT&T are getting even more out of the deal.

As I mentioned in February when the Starbucks Wi-Fi deal with AT&T was first disclosed, Starbucks’ genius here is that it’s using wireless access to lasso customers and pull them into its online services — Starbucks.com is acquiring customers for basically no cost, since AT&T’s already running the hotspots.

Once that relationship is established, customers are likely to keep coming back to Starbucks. They’ll probably be enticed to use other Starbucks services — credit cards, music downloads and who knows what else in the future.

AT&T also gets the customer files, since you actually create dual accounts when you register for the free Wi-Fi — one account with Starbucks and one with AT&T.

I’d expect it to pitch products and services on the welcome screen that appears on your desktop when you log in. I wonder if it will also reach out to make offers offline, after you leave the store – Starbucks credit card offers, perhaps?

It’s not a huge privacy crisis. You make a similar trade with Google everytime you use its service, giving it opportunity to sell ads to you. But the thing to remember is that the services aren’t completely free.

(Not to mention the second loop of the lasso: Starbucks’ requirement that you buy $5 a month worth of beverages to keep getting the two-hour blocks of access. …)

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