McDonald's rollout of free Wi-Fi offers a useful on-the-road option if you need connectivity in a hurry, but there's some catches to be aware of.
As we reported back in October, McDonald's has abandoned its long-standing arrangement of offering Wi-Fi from Telstra you have to pay for in favour of a free offering throughout its stores. Apparently, there's more marketing advantage in offering a free service than cash through partnering with a paid one.
Since that announcement, the rollout has been proceeding fairly rapidly. According to a schedule published recently at OzBargain, the free option is already operational at company-owned stores across Australia, and at franchised stores in NSW and the ACT. Other franchised stores should all be in place by mid-March (there's no obvious way I know of to tell a franchised from a company-owned store other than asking on site).
Given McDonald's near-ubiquity in major centres, this is a potentially useful option for travellers, but you do need to be aware of the challenges. Firstly, McDonald's has made no secret of the fact that it is filtering the service to keep it family-friendly. That shouldn't present a challenge for most everyday activities you'd be prepared to conduct in a public place, but you might find that some of your favourite blogs get blocked.
Secondly, as with any free offering, various other services are likely to be blocked. It's not uncommon for outgoing SMTP to be barred with public Wi-Fi services, which is not an issue if you use webmail, but a problem if you prefer a mail client. (If anyone's got specific experience on this front, share it in the comments.) The My E65 blog also notes that there's a 50MB download limit and no P2P allowed.
Finally, one perhaps less obvious disadvantage of free Wi-Fi is that there's pretty much nothing you can do if something goes wrong: if you haven't paid, there's really no grounds for complaint, and screaming at the staff isn't going to help. I was reminded of this recently while testing out the Wi-Fi offering at Viva McDonald's, a flash new branch of the chain which has opened in (obviously) Las Vegas. The site's high-tech credentials — including Wi-Fi and a brace of TV screens — had been heavily played up in promotions around town, but when I got in there a working signal was nowhere to be found. But hell, I needed the coffee (and the exercise walking down there) anyway.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is not going to deny that the Bacon & Egg McMuffin Meal is one of his travel breakfast staples. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.