Starbucks brewing up free Wi-Fi at all stores

Free Wi-Fi and free access to certain paid Web sites and services will soon be percolating for coffee drinkers at all Starbucks chains across the country.

Starbucks is stirring up a few changes to its Wi-Fi access that should make Web-surfing coffee drinkers happy.

Starting July 1, the coffee brewer said it will launch free Wi-Fi access throughout all of its stores nationwide, with no special registration or account required and no limits on the time people can spend online.

Available through AT&T, the enhanced Wi-Fi improves on the current access, which is free to customers who use their AT&T accounts or Starbucks cards to log in, $3.99 for everyone else, and restricts the time online to no more than two hours.

Appearing at Wired's business conference Disruptive by Design on Monday, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz spoke about the new Wi-Fi access as part of the company's goal to embrace social and digital media and look for new ways to bridge a customer's coffeehouse experience with the digital world.

Beyond the enhanced Wi-Fi access, Schultz also unveiled plans for a new in-store service called the Starbucks Digital Network, slated to come online this fall. Teaming up with Yahoo, Starbucks will offer customers free and unrestricted access to different paid sites and services. Content partners will include WSJ.com, iTunes, The New York Times, Patch, USA Today, Yahoo, and Zagat. Additionally, Schultz said the new network will provide exclusive content, free downloads, and local community news.

Though Starbucks has offered its limited brand of Wi-Fi service for years, first through T-Mobile and then through AT&T , the company has lagged some of its competitors in offering unlimited free access.

McDonald's, which sells coffee alongside its thick milkshakes, added free, unrestricted Wi-Fi access via AT&T to its menu in January, while nationwide cafe chains like Panera Bread also offer instant and free Wi-Fi.

Since his return to the CEO role in 2008, Schultz has been busy trying to promote Starbucks as a spot where people can work and socialize, especially online . He has spoken before about creating a third place between work and home and reiterated that point at the Wired business conference.

Given the company's track record at tapping into the online world, Schultz's new Wi-Fi initiatives may pay off. In a study from last July, Starbucks was named the biggest brand on the Web at using social media to promote itself and engage its customers.

 

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