Free Wi-Fi: From burger chains to public parks

The Krystal Co., which operates 425 restaurants in the Southeast, has announced plans to add free Wi-Fi service to the menu in 52 of its outlets by the end of this month. After that, it will evaluate the service's success and decide whether to expand it further.

Krystal, famed for its square hamburgers, joins a booming free Wi-Fi market in the U.S. and Canada, which includes outlets ranging from bookstores to coffee shops, airports and even a dentist's office in Ontario.

James Exum Jr., CEO of Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Krystal, said the company views high-speed wireless Internet access as a way to attract and retain customers. And he believes that providing free access -- instead of the paid service offered by McDonald's Corp. -- will put less pressure on his restaurant staff and managers.

"We're in the hamburger business," Exum said, "and if I had paid access, my managers would have to help customers with their (Wi-Fi) configuration." Free access is better, he said, because Wi-Fi-equipped notebooks and handheld devices are much easier to configure -- and Exum believes paid plans are doomed anyway.

"This (Wi-Fi access) is not going to last long on pay," he said.

Jim Sullivan, a Pebble Beach, Calif.-based Web site designer and operator who runs the Wi-Fi Free Spot Web site, said both the paid and free models will survive, with the growth of free service "steady" over the past 18 months. Sullivan said he adds about 30 free hot spots a week to his site, most of them operated by stand-alone establishments, primarily in the U.S. and Canada.

The site currently lists about 2,200 free Wi-Fi hot spots, with links to chains such as free Wi-Fi pioneer Schlotzsky's Inc. in Austin and Panera Bread Co. in Richmond Heights, Mo.

Since he doesn't list all chain restaurant or hotel sites individually -- and hasnt identified all free Wi-Fi sites -- Sullivan said the total number of free sites is likely "much higher" than what he has listed. Sullivan's list includes a dental office in Mississauga, Ontario, which was added to his directory today. The dentist, Dr. Neil J. Gajjar, said he decided to offer the service so business clients could check their e-mail while "their kids are getting their teeth cleaned" or waiting for their own appointment.

David Reid, Krystal's CIO, said the company can add free Wi-Fi service "without a huge capital investment" because it piggybacks on a wired high-speed network infrastructure installed in all its stores, typically DSL or cable modem service with data rates in the 900Kbit/sec. range. These wired connections support in-store systems whose traffic is so light that the Wi-Fi service has access to about 98 percent of the backbone capacity.

Krystal is installing low-cost 802.11b access points from the Linksys Group Inc. division of Cisco Systems Inc., which provide raw data rates of 11Mbit/sec. in the 2.4-GHz band, Reid said. Krystal preconfigures the access points before shipment to the stores, and installation takes less than a half-hour.

Exum said the company's first restaurant with free Wi-Fi, at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, attracted a crowd of college students. But other outlets tend to attract business travelers, including Crystal's own management team.

Also with an eye on travelers, the Albuquerque International Sunport in New Mexico has offered free Wi-Fi service since February. But the airport started promoting the service only in the past month, according to Phil Nelson, the airport's technical program manager. Since then, it has attracted a high proportion of business users.

Nelson said the airport's free Wi-Fi network averages about 15 users a day, with about nine of those using virtual private network connections, indicating sessions initiated by business travelers. The Sunport has installed a dual-band, trimode network geared for growth, Nelson said, offering 54Mbit/sec. Wi-Fi connections based on the 802.11g standard in the 2.4-GHz band, and on the 802.11a standard in the 5-GHz band.

The Sunport also offers free 802.11b-based Wi-Fi service, with the terminal blanketed by 15 Cisco access points and a connection to the Internet over a T1 (1.54Mbit/sec.) connection.

Schlotzsky's continues to expand its free Wi-Fi service and by the end of the month expects to offer it in 45 company-owned and franchised stores, up from 30 outlets last October, according to spokeswoman Monica Landers. Schlotzsky's has also helped spread free Wi-Fi service to parks in Austin through a collaboration with the Downtown Park Partners, the Austin Wireless City Project and the city of Austin.

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