Starbucks to Offer Free Wi-Fi With AT&T
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SEATTLE (AP) -- Starbucks Corp. and AT&T Inc. will start offering a mix of free and paid wireless Internet service in most of the international coffee retailer's U.S. shops, beginning this spring.
The move announced Monday ends a six-year partnership T-Mobile, which did not include free Wi-Fi and charged higher fees than AT&T will.
Starbucks said it will give customers who use a Starbucks card two hours of free wireless access per day. More time than that will cost $3.99 for a two-hour session. Monthly memberships will cost $19.99 and include access to any of AT&T's 70,000 hot spots worldwide.
Nearly all of AT&T's broadband Internet customers, about 12 million, will automatically have unlimited free Wi-Fi access at Starbucks, the companies said.
The deal boosts the number of AT&T hotspots in the U.S. to 17,000 -- the most in the nation.
''We're very excited about what we're doing together to align ourselves with what consumers want,'' said Rick Welday, a chief marketing officer for AT&T's consumer business.
Current T-Mobile HotSpot customers, who pay from $6 per hour-long session to $9.99 for a day pass to $39.99 a month for unlimited access, will get Wi-Fi access at no extra charge through an agreement between AT&T and T-Mobile.
Chris Bruzzo, Starbucks' chief technology officer, would not disclose how many customers use the T-Mobile service in Starbucks stores, but said he expects many more will use the new service. Starbucks will begin rolling it out this spring and aims to have it available in its more than 7,000 company-operated domestic stores by the end of the year.
Robert Toomey, an analyst with E.K. Riley Investments, called the move ''a good first step'' for a company that has seen its traffic into U.S. stores decline for two consecutive quarters.
It's smart for Starbucks to link the new Wi-Fi service to its purchase card, which tens of millions of people use to buy their mochas and lattes, he said.
''I think it's a double positive for both product sales and traffic,'' Toomey said.
AT&T, the nation's largest telecommunication company, has powered the network service Starbucks uses to run its cash registers and other computer systems for years.
Asked if problems with quality and service reliability were factors in Starbucks' decision to part with T-Mobile, Bruzzo said no.
''Starbucks was at a place where we were evaluating who our right go-forward partners should be, and as we looked at who could provide that in the best possible way, AT&T continuously came back to the front,'' Bruzzo said.
Starbucks' switch to AT&T is a big blow for T-Mobile, which has nearly 8,900 wireless hotspots in the U.S., most of them in the coffee company's stores. T-Mobile also offers its subscription wireless service in Borders Books and Music stores, FedEx Kinko's stores, various hotels, airports and airline clubs.
T-Mobile USA, headquartered in suburban Bellevue, did not immediately return calls for comment.
Last month, AT&T announced plans to make its 10,000 Wi-Fi hotspots free to nearly all of its broadband Internet customers. The move expanded access to include subscribers who have a lower tier of high-speed Internet service, increasing to 12 million the number of broadband customers who can use the hotspots free of charge. Previously, only subscribers to AT&T's premium broadband service had free access.
''Here we are with the nation's largest Wi-Fi network,'' said AT&T's Welday. ''Consumer trends are clearly pointing toward an increased need and desire to access broadband outside the home and office -- what a terrific opportunity.''
The companies did not disclose financial terms of their deal.
AT&T also is giving Starbucks' more than 100,000 U.S. employees free wireless accounts and said it will soon extend the Wi-Fi at Starbucks to its wireless phone customers. The company announced no details or time frame for that expansion.
Starbucks offers in-store wireless Internet access in some international markets, and Bruzzo said the company is committed to expanding it, though it has no timetable. He also said Starbucks plans to work toward offering wireless Internet at stores its licensing partners run in airports, shopping malls and the like.
Starbucks shares rose 26 cents, or 1.4 percent, to $18.52, while AT&T shares rose 50 cents, or 1.4 percent, to $36.87.
AP business writer Elizabeth White contributed to this report from San Antonio.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press