SearchTHIS: Google Goes Wi-Fi

Free wireless internet for everyone! Well, not exactly free per se, you might be asked to download an application or two that will help cover the costs of getting connected, but that shouldn’t really bother you. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get online no matter where you were? It seems the city that still has my heart is leading the charge, but there are a few complications

It all began when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom asked the private sector for a little assistance in solving the city’s wireless problem. Having spent a bit of time in San Francisco, I would think the bigger problem might be the city’s open door policy for the most belligerent panhandlers the world has ever known, but I might be alone on that one.

Twenty-six companies submitted bids for offering wireless access to the city at large. Many of those bids have been made public. San Francisco may serve as a model for future wireless roll-outs all across this great nation, and while the leading contenders have yet to be disclosed, the “free” offers comprise the lion’s share of buzz.

There are far reaching implications for advertisers if a certain search giant wins.

Free your mind

Disclaimer: I am not a Google lobbyist by any means, but I like free stuff.

Google’s plan has clearly seen the most blogosphere chat activity due to the low or no cost plan. Most Wi-Fi providers seek to capitalize on the economic benefits of large scale distribution while Google will build the network and keep it (for the most part) free to users visiting or living in the city.

Another company, MetroFi has offered a plan to provide free access if the user agrees to keep a small advertiser window open during surf activity. I promise to look at every ad delivered to me while I frantically surf in the open air environment. Plan B for MetroFi is a $14.99 per month offering.

Adding up monthly connectivity costs for most is a desperate exercise in accounting. Let’s see, I pay about $30 per person at the office, another $50 at home, figure $100 for hotel internet access, and -- just for giggles -- mobile access points at airports and coffee shops runs me about $60 per month. Add all of this up and I have just one thing to say -- bring on the ads!

Free quid pro quos

The obvious benefit for big Wi-Fi providers is the cash flow. Google’s nearly free plan works on so many levels that it’s hard to imagine San Francisco going another direction. There are however, a few things to consider when reviewing any free Wi-Fi.

Competition is generally a very healthy thing in offering public services and there wouldn’t be much of that if one provider is selected. As in Google’s published request for information response, other providers may re-sell premium Wi-Fi services (this reeks of Telco monopoly) if Google is selected.

The Google free plan won’t represent the fastest connection, so premium services will be offered. Google will also have to offer equipment for sale to speed up connectivity for indoor users. Also, users will most likely be encouraged to download an application (this sounds like adware) along with their connectivity package.

If the combo-platter of Google's new pursuit of voice connection with Google Talk, the new bid to control the wireless pipe and the new Sun Microsystems partnership (with the mass distribution goal of spreading the Google toolbar) is any indication, Google is well on its way to dominating the connected world. Like it or not, they may well be the best qualified to move Wi-Fi forward in San Francisco or anywhere else.

Target the free

Wouldn’t it be great if you could target mobile surfers picking up free Wi-Fi with messaging designed specifically for them? Proximity-based targeting has been a dream for some time, and there is a bit of controversy surrounding the notion of launching those geo-seeking search ad missiles, but the possibilities cannot be ignored.

New proximity-based ads would notice when you are searching for a hotel, and let you know that the new swanky parie hiton is just three blocks away. Searching for a new wireless phone? Why not head over to the new prints/ noxtole store right across the street? Need a brown bean injection? Stop at the beanery, then starbeans, dittle’s coffee and then proceed immediately to the downtown clinic (only two blocks away) for some blood pressure medication.

Of course we will have to master local search dynamics first, but you can’t argue with the notion of giving a little free access in exchange for the occasional non-intrusive search advertisements.

Let freedom… never mind

Wireless access could help search advertising continue its growth spurt over the long term. It won’t be the big giant 2002 to 2003 double digit growth we saw, but it is yet another path forward that has yet to be explored. From the initial response, search advertising funded Wi-Fi looks far better than the alternatives.

This also might be a great way to kill two birds with one stone. The bizarrely successful Bumvertising initiative from Benjamin Rogovy, president and chief economist of Front Door Enterprises, who capitalized upon “enormous potential in wasted homeless labor” by paying vagrants to display banners while seeking their daily handout. Similarly, San Francisco’s vagrants can be offered payment for distributing software and tech flyers in public places in support on free Wi-Fi.

The new “Wi-Bums” can make sure we all have the right tools for free Wi-Fi and provide a real value to the community. San Francisco vagrants already have the highest moxie quotient of any that I have seen in America so there won’t be any concerns about distribution and awareness.

You can’t walk down the street in the City by the Bay without being hit up for some spare change. If San Francisco goes for the Google plan with the Ryan-forced awareness “Wi-Bum” rider, everyone will be searching and surfing wirelessly in a matter of days.

Everybody wins.

iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Mr. Ryan is Managing Partner at
Kinetic Results.