Starbucks' wLAN service now covers 1,200 stores. With more than 40 million 'mobile professionals' in the US alone, the new service could pay off - but it faces fierce competition from other ISPs and foodservice companies. Starbucks needs to ensure its network is reliable and competitively priced, and also ensure its marketing strategy is highly effective.

Coffee chain Starbucks has partnered with Hewlett Packard and T-Mobile to offer high-speed wireless Internet access to customers at 1,200 of its stores. All the participating stores are currently in the US, but there are also pilot projects in London and Berlin.

The three partner companies are optimistic that by the end of the year one-third of Starbucks stores worldwide, an additional 800 cafes, will be equipped with high-speed wireless local area networks (wLANs).

The service allows customers with notebook computers or handheld devices to log on using their T-Mobile Internet access account and Hewlett-Packard software. Starbucks offers various packages at different price points - ranging from US$12.00/hour for a pay-as-you-go plan to US$49.95/month for nationwide unlimited use.

Howard Schultz, chairman and chief global strategist of Starbucks, said that the new offering aims to "... drive incremental traffic to our stores and also enhance the experience that our customers already have. Our stores have emerged as the third place between home and work." Starbucks plans a national newspaper advertising campaign in addition to in-store marketing initiatives to support the new service.

Since roughly 25% of corporate workers, or 40 million professionals in the US alone, spend more than 20% of their working time away from their station, the idea of high-speed wireless access in cafes is very compelling. The key to success will be consistent network quality at competitive prices, which the company believes that this network can provide.

At the same time, Starbucks should consider integrating this scheme with its successful loyalty card service. This would help drive recognition and usage, allowing the company to promote the new service heavily to its most loyal customers.

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