Planes, Trains, and Free Wi-Fi

by John Rogers on Jul 16, 2010
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Missing Connections

Perhaps the one thing that really stranded Neal Page (Steve Martin) and Del Griffith (John Candy) wasn’t their miserable luck, but a simple lack of technology.  If Planes, Trains, and Automobiles were remade today, I have to think the main antagonist would be the absence of internet or cell signal.

We live in one of the most digitally connected societies in the World, but the second the 3G signal disappears from our iPhone we freak.  You could be surrounded by a room full of people but suddenly you feel strangely cut off from the world around you.  There’s just something about those magical bars that warm your inner geek and reassure you that an unlimited amount of information and entertainment is but a click away.

Soup, Sandwich, and a Side of Broadband

For me, the same is true for Wi-Fi.  Sadly enough, I’ve even changed my lunch plans to include a restaurant that offers wifi…or more specifically free wifi (thank you very much Panera Bread.)  And just recently, Starbucks flipped on free wifi at their U.S. locations (with more rolling out internationally.)

So what if the same concept were applied to more than just fast food chains?  What if more airports, planes, and even commuter trains began to offer free wifi?

How many of you have popped open your laptop on a layover only to find out that pulling up your website du jour will cost you $10.  Excuse me, I mean $9.99 for two hours and $14.99 for an entire 24 hours.

Are you serious!? That’s highway robbery.

We all know wifi networks are comparatively cheap to set up.  Why then should two hours of checking scores on SportsCenter pay for your airports monthly internet bill?

Wi-fi, To Go

But what about planes and trains?  The technology might cost a bit more to pipe in an internet signal via satellite, but what if you became the only airline to offer completely free wi-fi access for all domestic flights?  I’d say, you’d have yourself a key competitive difference in today’s cut throat travel industry.

So what gives?  Why have major travel carriers hesitated to roll out the service for free to the masses?  Dollar dollar bills.  For one, the technology is still very pricey to install and maintain.  And consumers are still willing to pay for the novelty. That last part is key.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule.  Case in point: Amtrak.  That’s right, the good folks that offer rail service throughout the Continental U.S. are actually offering free wifi (for a limited time) along the Northeast Corridor.  So if you’re looking for a relaxing alternative to air travel you can save yourself the $9.99 Gogo InFlight charge and travel the scenic route between Penn and Union.

Free: A Business Model

But if you prefer to travel with the jet setting crowd, you might still be in luck.  As more and more airlines roll out their service across their fleet, some are offering complimentary wifi for a limited time.  Just last month, I flew Airtran from MCO to BWI and enjoyed free surfing (albeit a bit sluggish) both ways.

I believe more businesses (airlines, restaurants, hotels) will soon see the value of offering free wifi in order to attract digital hipsters, mommy bloggers, and business men and women who desperately need a dependable internet connection.  After all, it’s a small price to pay to lure potential new customers.

Here’s looking forward to successfully being able to stream more Hulu on my next trip.  After all if you happen to get stuck flying coach with a guy like Del Griffin, you can always zone him out with a healthy dose of Michael Scott…assuming you remembered your earphones.

For a more complete list of free wi-fi offerings at airports around the U.S., check this list.

Post Author

Digital Marketer at Disney Parks, music junkie, tech evangelist, quasi-geek, Florida Gators fan who loves to travel. Views expressed here are mine alone and don't reflect those of my boss, Mr. Mouse....

  • I am currently enjoying free Wifi at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) and love coming through here because of it. They have continued the Google Christmas free airport wifi promotion and there is still a Google load screen for their Wifi before redirecting you to a pretty slick CLT website.

    I gave in and bought a Boingo hotspot subscription a long time ago. It is at almost all airports and a lot of hotels as well. It only makes since to buy it ($10 a month I think) because the prices are so high for other solutions.

    My biggest complaint is hotels though. The nice the hotel the more pricey and usually worse the wifi. I'm looking at you Hilton, Hyatt, Doubletree, Holiday Inn. Starbucks has better Wifi than most of these hotels. And I am spending a lot more on the hotel's services than Starbucks.

    Also, another trend I am noticing is regional buses with free AC power outlets and free Wifi. Bolt Bus and Mega Bus are both doing this in the northeast. It is not amazing wifi, but decent enough at times to get some email and blogging done.

    Great post John. Here is to AT&T, Time Warner, and Comcast investing in better free wifi everywhere. We need it.

  • Thanks for adding your perspective Jason. I've heard Google was looking to continue/expand it's airport initiative which is great news!

    I've haven't tried Wifi on bus lines yet (SouthEast doesn't offer many bus routes), but if I lived in a big city up north I'd jump at the chance to surf wifi aboard mass transit on the way to work each day.

    Like you said, here's hoping ISPs roll out more free wifi soon. But more than likely, I think we'll see savvy marketers (transportation, restaurants, hotels, etc) footing the bill in order to attract foot traffic to their businesses. And I'll be more than happy to buy a sandwich, ticket, etc from them.

  • I'm definitely down with the free Wi-Fi in airports and even on planes. I don't travel that much, but when I do — I'm perpetually early. I go through security early and I find myself having to wander around the airport and spend money on stuff I don't really need. (Like 10.00 for a two hour time period of AT&T in order to kill 45 minutes.)

    The airline that does this could open up a ton of different possibilities. This may be a far off from practical example, but I like to work in extremes — lets say that same airline buys up a couple of hundred iPads. The traveler who only brings their laptop for time killing purposes on the plane, could very well make a killing on renting those out to travelers who don't want to have to carry them.

    However — with the coming of WiFi on airlines, I don't want anyone giving me fits to turn off my iPod as we take off and land. ;)

  • Hey Maranda, you might not be that far off. Here's an article about a Australian budget airline planning on renting iPads to passengers during flights:

  • I think everyone has become a bit sad in wanting everything to be free. OK, so tap water is free, but why should wifi be free? I have a 3G dongle that gets me access in most places, and generally I can get 3G reception because if I couldn't i'd panic about missing an important phone call and go elsewhere.

    And I'm willing to pay for that. I think we're all at risk of becoming persistant and permanent freetards.

  • I enjoy free wifi (and other free things like reading this blog) but I have to point out that “free” wifi isn't always completely free. If I meet a friend at Starbucks and happen to also surf some free wifi while enjoying my $5 latte…was that wifi truly free?

    Regardless, I think free wifi is a tactic some savvy businesses are using to attract customers…at least for now. Long term, more cities will be blanketed in wifi, wimax, etc and all this will become a moot point.

    Until then, here's to more “free” services. You should check out Chris Anderson's thoughts on free: