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Restaurants Discuss Wi-Fi Access Models at MURTEC

Should establishments in the food industry offer free Wi-Fi to their customers, just like napkins and condiments, or should there be a charge? This was the focus of a recent topic table discussion at the 2014 Multi-Unit Restaurant Technology Conference (MURTEC), in March at Caesars Palace Las Vegas.

The discussion was part of the annual Topic Table Luncheon and was sponsored by Spartan Computer Services. It included delegates from Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza, McDonald’s, Checkers, the Rose Group and McCrowd Restaurants. The conversation touched on a number of points including free vs. subsidized Wi-Fi, bandwidth constraints and availability, and the impact on table turns and occupancy.

Challenges vs. benefits
Hotspots have become the norm rather than the exception in the restaurant industry. In theory, the more time customers spend at the table, the more money they will spend at the restaurant and complimentary Wi-Fi can enrich the customer experience. 

One of the biggest challenges that restaurant operators face is in filtering the information accessed on the network. One executive noted that if a restaurant filters the information, they become primarily responsible for the information processed. However, if a restaurant decides not to filter they are not responsible for information passing through their network. The Rose Group’s Corrigan noted that heavy downloading can easily take a toll on the system, which is a factor in his company’s decision to limit free WiFi access to two hours for its guests.

Current use models
Having WiFi at the restaurant establishment is appealing to solo travelers, and that can be a large factor in establishments that are frequented by business travelers. In the QSR segment, where diners aren’t expected to linger, there remains ongoing debate about the best approach.

Starbucks has switched from a paid to a free model. The Rose Group’s Dave Corrigan noted that some restaurants impose a time limit on complimentary Wi-Fi, for example his organization limits free use to two hours. Panera used to offer unlimited free Wi-Fi but has rolled that back to 30 minutes for guests visiting during peak lunch hours. Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza limits free Wi-Fi to one hour for guests and additional time can be purchased.
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