December 20, 2002, 12:00 AM

Schlotzsky’s gets ready to roll out free wireless access to the Internet

In one of the first practical applications of wireless fidelity web access by retailers, Schlotzsky’s is offering free wi-fi access in 10 sandwich shops in Austin, Texas, with plans to expand to 20 more.

In one of the first practical applications of wireless fidelity web access by retailers, Schlotzsky’s Inc. is offering free wi-fi access in a pilot program at 10 Schlotzsky’s Deli sandwich shops in Austin, Texas. So far, the wi-fi broadband access-–which customers can use on their own laptops or on in-store desktop computers made available by Schlotzsky’s–-is being widely used by customers, the company says. “We didn’t even advertise it,” a spokeswoman says.

Schlotzsky’s says it has no intention of charging for the wi-fi access, even though it cost the company $4,000 or more to configure each restaurant with the wireless technology, plus the cost of as many as six Apple iMac computers in each shop. “We are a fun, innovative restaurant on the cutting edge of an exciting trend,” said CEO John Wooley. “Free Internet access just makes sense to us. More important, our customers are telling us they like it.”

The company used its own IT department to set up wi-fi, including internal and external antennas that distribute wi-fi signals both within the restaurants and to the surrounding areas. Wi-fi signals extend the broadband access that enters each Schlotzsky’s Deli through a fixed high-bandwidth line. Although the wi-fi signal can travel as far as a mile, most users are able to access it within 300 to 500 feet of the antenna.

Schlotzsky’s says it expects to eventually roll out free wi-fi access in all 30 company-owned restaurants and encourage its more than 600 independent franchise restaurants to offer it.

Through a device linked to a broadband DSL or T1 line, wi-fi expands broadband Internet access from wired access points to any wireless-configured computer, including PDAs, laptops and desktop computers. The advantages it offers center around a relatively inexpensive and highly portable method of distributing high-bandwidth web access, since it does not require physical extensions of high-bandwidth lines. A retailer can move wi-fi-accessible desktops to any in-store location without disrupting merchandising displays, for example, and customers can log on to wi-fi web access from a laptop or PDA without having to plug into a high-bandwidth line.

Each wi-fi implementation, or hotspot, operates as a wireless local area network. Sponsors of wi-fi implementations can charge for access by also configuring a billing system that, for example, requires a user to log on by entering a credit card account number.

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