As Wi-Fi Service Expands, Debate Centers on Covering the Costs
Byline: Andrew Wang Medill News Service
It may seem an odd association, but a Starbucks coffee shop on Michigan Ave. and a 42-block area of St. Louis have one thing in common.
Both are public "hot spots" - the increasingly prevalent places where anyone with a wireless fidelity-enabled device can be connected to the Internet without a wire.
If these disparate locales have Wi-Fi in common, though, a key distinction separates them: who's covering the costs?
As this developing technology moves toward mainstream acceptance, there's debate about who should pay.
At one end of the spectrum, the expenses are passed on to the end user as monthly usage charges. At the other end, third parties - a city government trying to revitalize downtown, hotels and restaurants trying to draw customers, or, as many in the industry are predicting, advertisers trying to penetrate a new medium - are footing the bill and allowing Internet surfers to log on free of charge.
To log on to a wireless network, users need a wireless card on their laptops or PDAs. Many newer laptops come with the hardware pre-installed, but aftermarket cards are widely available for less than $100.
For paid service, users also need a subscription to a wireless Internet service provider, which typically costs $30 to $50 per month.
Some companies are betting that consumers will open their wallets for Wi-Fi.
"Definitely I use it frequently enough to justify having it. It really depends on the needs of the person," said Jeff Zabin, an author and vice president of a marketing firm in Chicago who pays $29.95 per month for T-Mobile Wi-Fi access.
"I tell people my office is a soft, cushy chair at Starbucks or Borders."
T-Mobile USA Inc. operates about 2,700 hot spots nationwide, mostly at Starbucks coffee shops and Borders bookstores. Boingo Wireless Inc., Wayport Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Wireless Services Inc. all offer access at comparable rates and have partnerships with businesses in high-traffic areas.
Estimates show that there are currently between 2.5 and 5 million Wi-Fi users. In total, the country has about 5,000 public hot spots.
Wi-Fi has made inroads in the corporate world, especially with business travelers who relish the convenience of instant access to e-mail and digital information at airports, hotels and convention centers. …