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Wireless World: WiFi with those fries?

By GENE J. KOPROWSKI, UPI Technology News

A weekly series examining emerging wireless telecommunications technologies.

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CHICAGO, April 16 (UPI) -- A customer pulls up to the drive-through, pick-up window at a fast-food restaurant and places his order -- wireless fidelity access and fries to go. He parks his car in the lot nearby, logs on to the Internet with his notebook computer, eats his snack, checks his e-mail and drives off a few minutes later.

The announcement this week that McDonald's, the hamburger chain, is moving forward with plans to offer WiFi access to customers at its outlets across the United States presages the future of the mobile computing, experts said.

"People want to get a better life-work balance," said Roger Herman, a business futurist, and CEO of The Herman Group, located near Greensboro, N.C. "People are looking for much more flexibility - so they want to extend the concept of telecommuting beyond the home," he told United Press International.

The mobile telecom market is broadening its reach, expanding beyond business professionals to include soccer moms and dads, and college students.

Mobile hotspots, located at mass-market brand name outfits, fit the bill for this expansion, experts said, which is why other restaurant chains, such as TGI Friday's and Medieval Times, are joining the fray, offering online access to customers for a few dollars.

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Last summer, McDonald's chose Wayport Inc., located in Austin, Texas, and other wireless companies, such as Japan's Toshiba, for technology trials in some of the nation's most tech-savvy marketplaces. The firms outfitted an array of the franchise's outlets in Chicago, New York, Seattle and the San Francisco Bay area with wireless connections to conduct a beta test of the concept. More than 80 stores were fitted with the technology -- what techies call 802.11 b/g high-speed networks -- hidden under the ceiling tiles of each facility.

"After the trial, McDonald's discovered that, 'Hey this really does work,'" Dan Lowden, Wayport's vice president of marketing, told UPI. "Most of the wireless hot spots were at airports, or hotels or coffee shops. But people need high-speed Net access at convenient places between those locations. There are many more McDonald's restaurants than there are Starbucks coffee shops. Traveling salesmen needed a place that is easy for them to go to, get online, get something to eat and move on to the next appointment."

Lowden said soccer moms -- and dads -- also are big users of the WiFi hot spots. They like the fast-food places because their kids can play in the playroom while they catch up on their business e-mail.

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"The kids play at 'Playland' and moms and dads stay productive," he said.

Though hotels and some other providers furnish WiFi access for free, that's not the plan at McDonald's.

"Twenty-four million people a day visit a McDonald's," Lowden said. The fee will be $2.95 for two hours of access, but the average user only utilizes the hot spot for 20-40 minutes, which means the sales may be hugely profitable, he said.

Not everyone in every city uses WiFi today, though. A new survey released this week indicates only about 17 percent of all Americans, or 21 million people, use wireless devices to access the Internet.

The study was conducted by Pew Research, and was based on a national survey by telephone of 2,024 adults.

Researchers said the largest segment of the population using wireless Internet access -- 28 percent of wireless users -- was between ages 18 and 27. By making access more mainstream, however, McDonald's may help to increase growth of WiFi dramatically.

"We're going to be adding new cities quickly," said Lowden. "We will have 3,000 to 6,000 stores WiFi ready within a year."

The company will not disclose the size of the contract it reached with McDonald's this week, but it is planning to add 90 employees to the 230 it already employs, Lowden said. That could place the build-out contract in the $9 million range, based on a conservative business analysis metric.

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"There are other business partners that are coming onboard with this," Lowden said. "This is a model that everybody sees a lot of value in. The WiFi service will be a new, technology-driven profit center."

This could include special digital magazines, developed just for McDonald's customers.

Lowden even sees the restaurant offering promotions to customers, where they will be given coupons to try the hot-spot service, for free, along with an order of fries, and a shake and a burger, or a special value meal.

"That worked out well in the trials," he said. "Many purchase it afterward for an hour for free."

Some experts are skeptical the move will be a massive moneymaker, however. Michael J. Kasprzyk, chief executive officer of Thinwires LLC, of Buffalo, N.Y., a hot-spot developer for TGI Friday's and other clients, said in his experience, revenue growth is slow in hot spots unless it is offered in a neighborhood with a large residential population nearby.

"The hot-spot model only flourishes in communities where people live," Kasprzyk told UPI.

"My wife and I spent some time in our motor home," Herman said. "Starbucks, Borders, and Kinko's offer WiFi, but sometimes it is challenging to find these kinds of locations. McDonald's is much more prolific out there. It is easier to find them. It may attract a lot of use."

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Sometimes, WiFi hot spots flourish in unexpected places, said Dan Young, president of PC Laptops LLC, a technology company in Sandy, Utah.

"In Salt Lake City, at the Mega-Plex, downtown, during 'The Lord of the Rings' premiere, you saw people camping out in line, typing on computers, and accessing the net wirelessly," Young told UPI. "They had a high-speed access line there."

There are internal business benefits for a restaurant or a store or theater to offer WiFi access, said Barry Issberner, vice president of vertical marketing at Symbol Technologies in Holtsville, N.Y.

"What many restaurants have discovered is that they can utilize the same wireless infrastructures they're using for hot spots to improve operations of their facilities," Issberner told UPI.

Some restaurant chains, he said, are using WiFi networks to provide automated, tableside ordering.

"Servers carry a mobile handheld device," he explained, "to transmit customer orders directly to the kitchen. No time is wasted writing down orders and than having to re-enter them at a fixed computer terminal. And when it comes time to pay, credit cards can be swiped and processed right at the table."

This means waiters and waitresses at Medieval Times -- young, struggling actors, dressed as wenches, knaves, and wizards from old England -- can spend more time relating to customers.

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"Restaurants that have deployed this type of system, like Medieval Times, estimate that if this system enables them to serve just one more round of drinks each night, it will pay for itself in less than one year," Issberner said.

Would thou like a soda with thine WiFi?

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Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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