Looking Beyond Coffee, Starbucks Seeks a New Digital Future

Starbucks (s sbux) today announced that it will provide free wireless access in all U.S. company-operated locations starting July 1. And this fall it will launch the Starbucks Digital Network, a partnership with Yahoo (s yhoo) that will provide customers free unrestricted access to pay sites such as the Wall Street Journal. Additional content providers in the new, in-store network offering include iTunes (s aapl), The New York Times, Patch, USA TODAY and ZAGAT.

Starbucks previously offered Wi-Fi access to both registered Starbucks cardholders as well as AT&T (s t) customers. But while many have tried, wireless access by itself is no longer enough to differentiate a company’s services and woo customers. By leveraging premium content relationships, however, the new Starbucks Digital Network offers a significant value-add. It’s a clever move, and a forward-thinking one in terms of content — much like Barnes & Noble’s (s bks) enabling of access to free e-book reading on the Nook device while in the store for an hour a day.

I’ve been considering an iPad (s aapl) subscription to the Wall Street Journal (s nws), but find it a bit too pricey for my tastes. However, I do frequent Starbucks locations on a regular basis already, and I just might turn my occasional Starbucks visit into a daily one if — just like when someone leaves a copy of the paper behind — I can read the Journal there for free. Of course, Starbucks wins big in this situation by combining premium information with its retail locations as the longer I’m in the store enjoying additional content and a wireless connection, the more likely I am to buy a beverage or a bite to eat.

From the consumer side, I see much to like. I’m wondering however, how such new strategies will begin to affect Wi-Fi network companies like Boingo. I currently pay $9.95 a month for Wi-Fi access on the Boingo network, which includes Starbucks locations as well as some hotels and airports. Without the added benefit of premium content, Wi-Fi network providers could face a challenge they didn’t see coming from a pipe that isn’t dumb.

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