Why Free WiFi Isn't Free

by Morgan Siem on December 29, 2009

in Media

Did anyone else use their gift from Google Santa this holiday season? If not, you still have until Jan. 15 to use Google’s free WiFi for the holidays at 54 participating airports.

Google Free Holiday WiFi at 54 airports

Google Free Holiday WiFi at 54 airports

So, why are they doing this? What’s in it for them? They’re brilliant, really. They’re giving you free internet in return for data. They want your browsing data. What Web sites are you looking at? For how long? In what sequence?

It’s just like the tradeoff you make when using your free (and wonderful) Gmail account. You get to use the service for free, and Google gets insight into what you’re e-mailing about. You might have noticed that Gmail serves you ads at the top of your inbox. Did you ever notice that those ads are targeted to the e-mail you’re reading? For instance, I know someone who works for Bank of America. When I receive e-mails from her, the small print below her signature contains some legal jargon including a mention or two of Bank of America. As a result, whenever I open an e-mail from her, the link / Google ad at the top of my inbox is almost always for Bank of America, if not for a competitor financial institution.

Google hasn’t said it straight out (scroll down to “What kind of information are you collecting about users with the networks?”), but I imagine you make the same tradeoff for free WiFi at the airport. You get free internet access and Google gets your browsing data to help them sell more ads. To me, it’s a great exchange – I want free internet, and I also want to see ads that are better suited to my interests. The extent of Google’s data on its users is a bit frightening, but I’m willing to make the exchange. How about you?

And, if you don’t know how you feel about Google investigating your online habits, perhaps you’ll feel better about them matching your donation to charity. Nothing suspicious about that, right?

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa Adams Melissa December 29, 2009 at 2:17 pm

I have long since come to terms with the fact that Google probably knows more about me than my family so for me, this free WiFi offer is an excellent dividend to help offset holiday travel insanity.


Morgan Siem December 29, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Melissa – So true! I know it certainly helped offset holiday travel insanity for me this past weekend when my flight was delayed. Thank you, Google!


Brian McDonald December 29, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Great post Morgan and you are so correct, it’s all about the data. Free Wi-Fi is nothing to a large company like Google or AT&T for a short period of time. They want the data and can use that to make real money in ads, research and how they can target holiday travelers in 2010.

In creating SignalShare we see the same challenge. Charging for Wi-Fi is a barrier most consumers do not want to cross. But how do you make money giving away free Wi-Fi? It’s the data!


Morgan Siem December 29, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Brian – thanks for your comment – I was hoping the expert would weigh in! For everyone else, check out SignalShare: http://www.signalshare.net/


joeycos December 29, 2009 at 3:59 pm

I agree nothing is free and I support the notion of more targeted advertising. I confess I am a marketers dream, show me something I want and I am likely to say “Hell Ya” and then click to buy. Side note, major reason I am not allowed on Amazon unsupervised anymore ;-) !! With that said looking at my data is a bit of a concern but I really gave up the idea of privacy online anywhere years ago. If I’m traveling and can find #freewifi I will use it as long as it is quick and stable. Although big #fail for nothing at RDU.
Nice post….


wifihead December 29, 2009 at 4:01 pm

That’s the price we pay for living in our digital world.Great article.


Laura December 29, 2009 at 4:05 pm

The thing that I find funny is that whenever I go into my spam folder in Gmail, I always get an ad at the top for Spam and/or different Spam related recipes…


Morgan Siem December 29, 2009 at 4:10 pm

Joey – thanks for the comment – I’m the same when it comes to targeted ads. I think, “Nice job, advertiser, you found me!” and then I get out my credit card :) I agree, no #freewifi at RDU was a let down. Let’s petition Google Santa to include us next year!

Laura – I’m cracking up. That’s pretty funny :)


Andrew December 29, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Let’s hope Google still follows that “Don’t be evil” mantra.

But free WiFi is a good thing, no matter the provider. It might put pressure on other providers to do free WiFi promotions. And then, everyone wins.

Andrew | @haikuhijinks


Michael Hubbard Michael Hubbard December 29, 2009 at 4:25 pm

I am all for free wifi, and I don’t care if it’s Google doing it or Joe’s Barber shop – but make it reliable. That being said, there’s a lot of good reasons for free wifi, but if we’re moving to a mobile society, is it going to be worth the investment in the long run? I was once told no one would ditch their newspapers… Then I was told that people wouldn’t get rid of their desktops. Now there are laws about texting while driving – but I think you can still use your laptop legally while driving :) . Just saying, I’m all for free wifi, but it may not be worth the time and effort if the next iphone advancement comes along…


Robot January 1, 2010 at 10:27 pm



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