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Free WiFi at McDonald's, coming in 2010

The fast food chain will stop charging for Internet access at its 11,000 US stores starting next month.

By Andrew Heining / December 16, 2009

WiFi coming: The McDonald's in Times Square is one of the 11,000 in the US that will serve up free wireless Web access starting in January.

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Smiles are free at McDonald's. And, soon, WiFi will be too.

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The fast-food chain announced Tuesday that it's dropping its fee of $2.95 for two hours of access, effectively inviting the public to surf all they want at the golden arches through a partnership with AT&T. But the move's ramifications may also be felt outside the land of quarter-pounders and apple pie in a box.

More than Starbucks, more than Barnes and Noble or Borders, McDonald's' free WiFi portends a shift in how the public views access to the Web. As the country's most ubiquitous restaurant chain, McDonald's makes it difficult for any public gathering place to keep charging for WiFi with a straight face. That's not to say that they won't try – high-end hotels, we're looking at you – but now the notion seems to be that if WiFi is offered at all, it better be free.

The shift has been long in coming. The search for a coffee shop with free WiFi used to be a rite of passage for frugal tech-savvy travelers – local joints were once a haven, asking only that patrons actually purchase something before partaking in gratis Googling. But recently the major bookseller chains have gotten in on the act, and, gradually, so has Starbucks. The coffee chain still requires would-be users to load up money on one of its gift cards and make a purchase with it to unlock a few hours of WiFi, but it's a big shift from the subscription-only scheme it ran for years through T-Mobile and now AT&T.

Free WiFi, though still a gimmick in many applications, is expanding, and in increasingly inventive ways. Take the solar-powered free public WiFi stations that sprang up around US cities this summer as a promotion for the third-generation Toyota Prius.

The free WiFi movement has also expanded to the air this holiday season, with Google footing the bill for access at some 54 airports around the US through January 15. As we told you last month when the deal was announced, Google is providing the service to lessen the hassle of holiday travel – and to plug its Chrome Web browser (which just happens to now be available for Mac and Linux, provided you meet some rather stringent system requirements).

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What's your take? Will places like hotels stop charging for WiFi access now that McDonald's is dropping its fee? Will AT&T's much-maligned network be able to keep up with the surge in WiFi usage?

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