Is free sponsored Wi-Fi the shape of things to come?

Inflight Wi-Fi seriously took off in the past year in the U.S, with about 600 domestic aircraft currently equipped with inflight broadband (for the majority provided by Aircell’s GoGo). To make the flying public familiar with the new service, GoGo and U.S. carriers have been handing out complimentary promotional codes, so passengers can try the service first for free. AirTran gives passengers that buy one inflight Wi-Fi session their second session for free. And GoGo and Delta offered free Wi-Fi on National Breast Cancer Day (October 31), donating USD1 for each free session that day to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation. 

While these one-off offers might get some passengers interested to pay between USD6 and USD13 to stay connected in the air, airlines and advertisers are teaming up to offer inflight Internet for free. Part of a trend, dubbed ‘Free Love’ by trendwatching.com, brands pick up the tab to offer passengers free inflight Wi-Fi. Everyone wins: travelers get free access, brands are able to reach an audience in a new way and airlines are able to build awareness about the Wi-Fi service via a new channel.

Google last month teamed up with Virgin America to offering free Wi-Fi on the airline’s flights until January 2010, while carmaker Lexus sponsored Internet access on American Airlines flights from 1 to 7 November. In what is definitely the buzz this U.S holiday travel season, comes the latest news that online marketplace eBay is partnering with Delta to give free Wi-Fi to passengers on 260 domestic aircraft for seven days during the week of Thanksgiving. Google today also announced that it is footing the bill at 54 airports across the U.S to provide free Wi-Fi as a holiday gift to travelers until January 15, 2010. 

Another development is the introduction of sponsored inflight entertainment portals, by inflight Internet providers such as Row 44 and Aeromobile. These so-called ‘walled-garden’ environments provide passengers free wirelesss access to a limited amount of (branded) content when in the air, sponsored by online advertisements. Wi-Fi advertising network JiWire also recently teamed up with Wi-Fi operator Boingo to provide free sponsored Wi-Fi at airports across the USA. The service typically offer users 15 minutes to 20 minutes of free Internet access after they watch a 30 second video ad.

A likely reason for these free Wi-Fi promotions is that passengers seem unwilling to pay for inflight broadband. The Economist’s Gulliver blog puts it nicely: “When most consumers pay for internet, they pay a monthly fee, not a one-time charge. That’s what people are used to. And in places where people can’t use their subscription Internet services, Wi-Fi is more often a perk than an add-on. […] An airline that wants to get a leg up on its rivals might be better off offering free WiFi to business class travellers to attract more customers and folding that cost into ticket prices, as Starbucks does with coffee.”

Update 20 December 2009. According to inflight entertainment and communications expert Michael Planey, passengers truly resent any additional fees as they are reaching a point of ‘fee fatigue’: “The service [Wi-Fi] is going to be free in less than two years. Long-haul travel, such as overseas flights, is a different story.”

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