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Tuesday, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that the first hurdle to offering free Wi-Fi service in San Francisco International Airport has been surmounted: the San Francisco Airport Commission has unanimously approved the concept.

While the Mayor predicts free Wi-Fi by this summer, no one can say for certain how long it may take for the remaining bureaucratic red tape to be cut, including approval from the San Francisco City Purchaser, followed by negotiations with the Airport’s current Wi-Fi vendor for a pilot program and ultimately a long vetting process for the eventual full-time vendor.

Yet there is no doubt that SFO is one big leap closer to free Wi-Fi. But is it a good idea for you, the passenger? At first blush, it may seem like a no-brainer. Having arrived three hours early to make it through security, only to find the flight was delayed another three hours, why shouldn’t we have free Wi-Fi to help us bide the time before boarding time?

Free Wi-Fi would certainly make the process more bearable. Indeed, Mayor Newsom proclaimed that “free and unfettered access to the Internet will keep SFO at the cutting edge of international travel.”

If the fee is charged directly to internet users, it is a choice: take it or leave it. If the fee is passed on through airlines, there will not be a choice.However, here are four reasons to remind ourselves that nothing free is ever free, and why free Wi-Fi in airports may be unrealistic as on on-going business model. But just in case you think there is nothing but bad news, we throw in a couple of good reasons why, despite the obstacles, free Wi-Fi may still be worth it (other than for just the eased burden on your own wallet.)

The national trend is towards a fee-based system: Setting aside regional airports and focusing on major hubs that are roughly the size of SFO, most currently favor fee-based Wi-Fi. The concourse fee for Wi-Fi in Atlanta-Hartsfield is US$7.99 for twenty-four hours. The same is true for Logan Airport in Boston and LAX in Los Angeles (although Boston, too, is reportedly considering experimenting with free Wi-Fi programs.) In Miami, the charge is $9.99. Midway and O’Hare in Chicago each charge US$6.99. Dallas/Fort Worth charges between $6.00 and $7.99. The three major airports in the greater New York area each charge $7.95. Other airports have attempted to offer free Wi-Fi service, such as Green Bay and Boise, but have backed away because of the drain on both human and financial resources. Of course, there are some exceptions, notably Oakland, Portland and San Diego, each of which continue to offer unlimited free Wi-Fi in airports, and have not indicated any intent to switch to a fee-based service. But at what cost, and to whom?

Wi-Fi is not free. The true capital costs for Wi-Fi service can be significant, particularly in areas that are sophisticated and vast, like major airports. Most airports charge for amenities, such as parking, luggage carts, etc. Many airport managers don’t see a reason to treat Wi-Fi any differently, and they see it as an expensive unit of overhead.

Costs for bandwidth, management and other operating expenses are not small, and may not be easily predicted, nor controlled once implemented. If airports do not recoup these charges from airport passenger internet users, they will either raise the already-existing airport fees, or recover the cost from airlines. These airlines will pass these costs to its passengers as part of the price of the ticket, or a related fee, whether or not the passenger actually uses the internet. If the fee is charged directly to internet users, it is a choice: take it or leave it. If the fee is passed on through airlines, there will not be a choice. Everyone will pay for it. And in more ways than one.

Litigation risks are litigation risks. Airports that operate free Wi-Fi will be seen as Internet Service Providers. This opens up the airport to a variety of potential liability risks for virus infections and other illegal activities that may be conducted over the network. Once a single lawsuit is instituted along these lines, even if it is without merit, the airport’s insurance rates will likely increase.

Or worse, there may be no insurance policy in place that covers such a risk. One way or another, this cost gets passed on to the passenger, whether or not he takes advantage of the free Wi-Fi. In this age of hyper-regulations for security and safety, no airport risk manager is interested in accepting additional risk without a corresponding fee in return.

You get what you pay for. The faster the stream, the more expensive the cost. As we get more acquainted with the ultra-fast broadband experience that we are offered at work and home, the slower systems offered by most free Wi-Fi services have become less and less tolerable. With the greater demand that inevitably weighs upon free service, the systems will become slower and slower, and likely break down more frequently, with little motivation for the airport to find a quick fix. This will result in less, not more, positive airport experiences, which is the last thing an airport wants.

But then again, what about the advertisers? Pro free Wi-Fi advocates point to the potential advertisement revenue that airports can generate through sponsored Wi-Fi. Space is commonly leased out throughout the concourse, from the gates, to the kiosks to – in some airports – the bottom of the trays you put your keys in at security. The same opportunities may be available for Wi-Fi.

For example, Hopkins Airport in Cleveland Ohio intends to offer free Wi-Fi service to its passengers once its current contract expires, and is currently exploring advertisement sponsorships that would utilize a splash screen with advertisements and offers for in-airport services.

Many people point to Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport as a model for free Wi-Fi, as the airport has offered this gratis service since November 2009, when its contract with its service provider expired. At first, Google was the knight in shining armor, agreeing to temporarily underwrite the Wi-Fi costs over the holiday break, its brand prominently displayed.

When the holiday season ended, Sea-Tac simply offered the service for free in Google’s absence, and continues to do so. If these airports can generate sufficient revenue through advertisement – and let’s face it, they have a captive audience – free Wi-Fi may be more than just a crowd-pleaser, it could be a moneymaker. Whether it is possible to make a profit, or even break even, along these lines remains to be seen.

Last but not least, let’s not forget the lonely, weary passenger. Really. Don’t forget about him or her. Airport managers are constantly striving to find ways to entertain and distract impatient, stressed travelers. A distracted traveler is a happy traveler, and a happy traveler is an easy traveler. For reasons too vast to count, airport managers want easy travelers. Easy travelers use fewer airport resources, such as customer service agents and security guards. Security incidents decrease as the level of a passenger’s distraction rises. And, finally, despite how you may feel when crowded around a stuffy airport, neck-deep in a line, passenger experience really is an airport manager’s number one priority.

But can the positive passenger experience that comes with free Wi-Fi be properly balanced with the fiscal and logistical challenges that will inevitably arise? Mayor Newsom seems to think so. Only time will prove him right or wrong.

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  • raqcoon

    It would have been nice to have free-fi at SFO when we wanted it. Who needs it now? Here come the iPads!

  • raqcoon

    It would have been nice to have free-fi at SFO when we wanted it. Who needs it now? Here come the iPads!

  • Nicky B.

    I find it interesting how most San Franciscans, myself included, are opposed to invasive advertising. Yet, as this article points out, it is through such forms of “covert marketing” that we are able to afford a number of programs which we tend to feel we deserve (i.e. ballparks, bus shelters, free wifi, etc.).

    Why don’t we just tax the rich instead?

  • Nicky B.

    I find it interesting how most San Franciscans, myself included, are opposed to invasive advertising. Yet, as this article points out, it is through such forms of “covert marketing” that we are able to afford a number of programs which we tend to feel we deserve (i.e. ballparks, bus shelters, free wifi, etc.).

    Why don’t we just tax the rich instead?