11 November 2009

Free Airport Wi-Fi -- What's In It For Google?

from Channel Web

Travelers slogging their way through the nation's airports this holiday season are sure to benefit from the free Wi-Fi service Google will be making available in 47 airports between now and January 15.

But maybe not as much as Google, which is subsidizing the Wi-Fi service.

Google Tuesday said that it would provide the free Wi-Fi access through a partnership with Boingo Wireless. Consumers can donate to one of several charities when they log on, and Google will match the donations up to $250,000. Google is already providing free Wi-Fi on Virgin America flights in a promotion that also lasts through January 15.

Google's seemingly altruistic offer should pay big dividends at a time the company could use some goodwill. Here's why:

1. The move will help Google build political capital. Google has long been a big proponent of high-speed, wireless Internet access, lobbying in Washington D.C. to open up a government auction of licenses to provide wireless services to other companies (possibly even Google itself) beyond the mainstream broadband service companies. Google also backs efforts to develop new Net neutrality rules.

2. Providing free airport Wi-Fi also will help Google build up some goodwill among consumers at a time when its reputation could use a little burnishing. Google has been stung in recent months by several highly-publicized failures of its Gmail e-mail service and the controversy over its efforts to digitize millions of out-of-print books. The former has raised questions about Google's reliability and the latter about whether the company is living up to its informal "Don't Be Evil" corporate motto.

3. Subsidizing airport Wi-Fi for travelers will help with Google's brand-building efforts. While one might think Google doesn't need to work on its brand -- "Google" has become a verb to search for something online, after all -- it can't afford to become complacent. Archrival Microsoft has been offering free Wi-Fi at hotspots around the country since September, and Yahoo is now giving away free Wi-Fi in New York City's Times Square.

Google SEO is in no immediate danger of losing its dominant position in the Internet search market: Microsoft's Bing hasn't cracked the 10 percent market share barrier yet, compared to Google's 65 percent share. But you have to wonder whether all those Microsoft TV advertisements showing dazed Google users spouting useless search terms are making people consider alternatives.

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