WiFi Offering Could Mean Extra Growth, If Not Bread

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For a few moments yesterday, Matt Drudge trumpeted this story by the Associated Press out of Philadelphia:

For about $10 million, city officials believe they can turn all 135 square miles of Philadelphia into the world's largest wireless Internet hot spot.

The ambitious plan, now in the works, would involve placing hundreds, or maybe thousands of small transmitters around the city " probably atop lampposts. Each would be capable of communicating with the wireless networking cards that now come standard with many computers.

The city would make the WiFi access either free or very cheap--and aim to bring it to even poorer neighborhoods within Philadelphia.

In other words, WiFi isn't just going mainstream. It's going Main Street.

Earlier this month Panera Bread announced it was rolling out completely free WiFi access to 375 of its stores in 27 states. One of its executives said it was just a matter of good business:

"Offering free Wi-Fi Internet access is keeping our customers in our stores longer--primarily during off-peak hours--and bringing them back more often, enhancing their experience of Panera Bread's quick casual environment."

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds blogged about the Panera rollout last month and provided generally upbeat reviews about the service.

In other words: Watch out, Starbucks. (The coffee retailing king, which offers T-Mobile WiFi access in its stores for a fee, doesn't specify how much revenue it makes from its wireless partnership. However, it tells investors that technology innovation and customer satisfaction is a big part of its strategy--so the Panera effort is a major shot across the bow.)

These developments dovetail with what industry experts, including Intel, say is a brisker-than-expected adoption of both wireless-based PCs as well as the buildout of infrastructure to support them.

So while a lack of killer software applications may be stunting industry growth, it may be the emergence of killer network access that could pick up some of the slack.

It might be worth pondering over coffee, a cruller and some web-surfing.

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