By Rob Pegoraro
Monday, June 14, 2010; 4:51 PM
The market rate for public WiFi access in downtowns and uptowns, strip malls and shopping centers, and most other places people drink coffee in the United States -- which is to say, a large fraction of America's populated surface -- is about to drop to zero. Starbucks announced Monday that starting July 1, it will no longer charge for WiFi Internet access in its U.S. coffee shops.
The move is an obvious step for the Seattle-based caffeine colossus, which had already begun providing two complimentary hours a day of WiFi to registered Starbucks Card holders in response to the free access offered by such competing coffee chains as Cosi and Caribou. (Those nationwide operations, in turn, followed the lead of independent coffee shops.)
Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz also said the company's U.S. locations will begin offering "a new online customer experience," the Starbucks Digital Network, this fall. Set up with Yahoo, this will provide free or expanded access to such news and entertainment sites as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, Apple's iTunes and AOL's Patch.
Note that both the free WiFi and the Digital Network will be available only in the stores the compahy operates directly, not those licensed to other operators in such locations as supermarkets and airports.