We’re on the brink of a 5G world, but people still want their Wi-Fi. And while citywide Wi-Fi may be less common in the US than in some other countries, US businesses are providing: coffee shops, restaurants, retail and grocery chains, and hotels all deliver free connectivity across the nation.
Not all of that connectivity is actually good, though. For our first survey of free nationwide Wi-Fi, we dipped into our partner Ookla Speedtest.net’s database of millions of crowdsourced tests and found that Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s are doing well, but Caribou Coffee and Taco Bell are just going through the motions. (Note: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag.com’s parent company.)
As LTE has gotten better, we found many places where the free Wi-Fi is much slower than the 4G LTE connectivity we saw in our Fastest Mobile Networks drive testing. Using 4G is also more secure than using an open Wi-Fi network. But some people are still on limited 4G plans, they’re trying to use laptops or tablets without 4G, or they’re deep enough within buildings that their 4G network fails.
The Fastest Free Coffee Shop Wi-Fi
If you’re selling coffee, you must have Wi-Fi. While independent coffee shops pioneered attracting customers with free Wi-Fi, the trend went big when Starbucks made a deal with AT&T to offer connections in 2010. Dunkin’ Donuts might be the number two coffee shop chain in the US, but it’s number one when it comes to Wi-Fi right now, with speeds slightly outpacing Starbucks.
We took a look at the Ookla Speedtest.net database to see where coffee shop Wi-Fi users were speeding along, and where they were hitting speed bumps. To find coffee chains and not folks who like to name their home networks “Starbucks,” we looked for tests using the chains’ Wi-Fi network names with portal pages, not passwords. Our chart below only includes chains that have more than 100 tests from more than 100 different Android mobile devices in the US in the past year. We spot-checked the GPS locations in the data to make sure the tests were taken at or near the businesses in question.
The big two in the world of coffee shop Wi-Fi
According to Statista, the third-biggest coffee chain in the US is actually McDonald’s, which we aren’t putting on this chart because it fits in (and wins) our Fast Food Wi-Fi category. It’s right up there in the mix with the majors, though, with average speeds of 24.2Mbps down.
Some European and foreign chains also have coffeehouse beachheads in the US, although by and large they’re small. We saw UK-based Caffe Nero and Denmark’s Joe & the Juice pop up in the Wi-Fi results, although without enough tests to make it into our chart.
In the battle of the giants, Dunkin’ beats Starbucks by a nose, with the win becoming clearer if you add in upload speeds as a factor. We have a good suspicion why: Fewer people are using the Wi-Fi at Dunkin’s less-inviting, more to-go-oriented stores, creating less congestion and letting users speed along just a bit better.
Interestingly, we saw a huge difference between the two Wi-Fi network IDs that each of Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks
Step down to “Dunkin Guest” or “Starbucks WiFi,” though, and you may be stuck on an older and slower system—that SSID didn’t show faster than 18.6Mbps down at Dunkin’ or 70Mbps at Starbucks.
Dunkin’ explained that it’s in the middle of an upgrade. “We are in the process of transforming Dunkin’ Donuts’ in-store Wi-Fi network to better serve our guests by providing them with even faster Wi-Fi service. This transformation includes replacing network hardware, adding dedicated wireless access points as well as increased network bandwidth where available. We expect to complete this transformation by the end of 2018,” the company said in a statement.
Starbucks is clearly in the middle of a transition too. While the company didn’t respond to my request for comment, baristas told me that “Starbucks WiFi” is an older, slower system than “Google Starbucks” (although both SSIDs’ portal pages say the internet is “brought to you by Google.”) In my own testing, the “Starbucks WiFi” at 375 Pearl Street in New York City only delivered speeds of 1 to 2Mbps down, while the “Google Starbucks” at 291 Broadway, just a 10-minute walk away, was over 30Mbps.
The Fastest Free Fast Food Wi-Fi
Do you want Wi-Fries with that? Fast food restaurants have been offering free Wi-Fi since at least
With 11,500 restaurants in the US, you’re definitely going to find some of that McWi-Fi near you. McDonald’s speeds compared well with the leading coffee shop Wi-Fi as well, finishing right in the middle of the tight pack of Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Peet’s speeds.
US restaurant consumers want Wi-Fi, although they may not be willing to go out of their way for it. According to Statista, even back in 2014, 84 percent of US consumers said Wi-Fi was a “very or somewhat important” feature of restaurant technology. Only 29 percent said “technology options” were a reason to dine at a particular fast-food restaurant, though.
Both fast food and sit-down restaurants offer free Wi-Fi nowadays, and we saw plenty of tests from sit-down restaurants and bars like Hooters, Buffalo Wild Wings, TGI Friday’s, and Rainforest Cafe. Anecdotally, though, we haven’t seen a ton of Wi-Fi usage at those places—perhaps because there’s often a server at your elbow trying to turn the table.
Two sit-down chains outpaced McDonald’s on download speeds: Hooters, with an average of 27.2Mbps down, and the Southeastern regional pizza chain Mellow Mushroom, at 26.9Mbps.
But we focused on counter-service places where you aren’t going to be bothered. While McDonald’s is the fastest, it’s a little hostile to sitting around with a laptop for long periods of time—and perhaps that lack of congestion keeps it fast. Panera, which is much more convivial for settling in, looks like a great alternative if you’re trying to get work done.
After McDonald’s and Panera, wow, those speeds drop off. Of the 14,603 tests we reviewed from McDonald’s, 815 were above 100Mbps. That’s not a huge number, but it’s significant. They were scattered all over the country, too. Wendy’s only had one result out of 652 over 100Mbps, from a location in Bellevue, OH. Looking at 512 tests from Burger King, not a single one came in over 5.7Mbps.
It’s clear that some fast food places, like McDonald’s, are offering Wi-Fi as a real service—and most of them are offering it just because they feel they ought to. With average speeds of 1.4Mbps at KFC, for instance, there’s no reason for anyone with a decent LTE data plan to hook up to the Wi-Fi there, especially as our Fastest Mobile Networks study showed US LTE carriers averaging 38 to 49Mbps with modern phones.
The Fastest Free Retail Store Wi-Fi
Microsoft beats Apple in the battle of in-store free Wi-Fi. The 89 US Microsoft Stores offer even faster Wi-Fi than Apple Stores do, so you can stream your Surface Book purchase to your admiring social followers.
Free Wi-Fi at retail stores isn’t just about online comparison shopping, although plenty of people are doing that. Often, it’s about getting a second opinion from your friends. I recently went on a handbag-hunting expedition with a friend of mine who quickly blasted off bag photos to her friends back home overseas—something that’s hard to do if your roaming data plan isn’t up to par.
We took a look at speeds at department and big-box stores, putting them in a separate category from smaller, specialty retailers. In general, offering Wi-Fi across a huge big-box store is a different technical challenge than wiring up a smaller venue. It might be more critical, too, as cell phone service can deteriorate inside a larger store more easily.
As befits their premiere technology brands, Microsoft and Apple stores led the pack. They were followed by outdoors retailer REI.
If you don’t live in the Midwest, the big-box winner might be a surprise to you: Meijer, which runs more than 200 big-box stores and another 200 gas stations in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Think of it as a regional Walmart.
Meijer takes an unusual approach to
Why the major speeds? Major couponing. According to an article from 2014 in Retail IT Insights, Meijer’s Wi-Fi move keeps users logged into the company’s mPerks coupon system and its mobile app, which has an integrated shopping list feature.
Meijer sits head and shoulders over its big-box and department store competition. Its average speeds are triple those of Walmart and Sam’s Club, although Walmart’s 13Mbps is plenty for comparison shopping, which is probably what you’re doing there. If you’re comparing prices at Target, though, you may want to stick to LTE. In 7,550 tests at Target stores, 1,296 (17 percent) came in at under 2Mbps down, which is frustrating for any kind of mobile web access. At Walmart, only 9 percent of the tests came out under 2Mbps, and at Meijer, only 4 percent were that slow.
If you’re wondering where Costco is on the list, the chain doesn’t offer free Wi-Fi. We couldn’t find sufficient tests from Kmart or Sears stores.
Why Do Businesses Offer Wi-Fi?
There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, a wise man once said, but there is free Wi-Fi. Businesses offer it for a few different reasons. Starbucks is invested in the concept of the “third place”—basically, a home away from home, where you’re likely to return over and over again. Wi-Fi helps the company maintain that loyalty by becoming the nation’s default coworking space. As Wi-Fi became table stakes for coffee shops, the nation’s number two chain, Dunkin’ Donuts, stepped up as well.
At family restaurants, Wi-Fi has become critical to keeping kids calm. Many families come in with phones or tablets and expect to pacify their children with streaming video. And in an era of social media, Wi-Fi encourages shoppers and diners to post promotional photos to their Instagram accounts without using up their data plans—but use that store hashtag, please.
Retail chains may have sneakier motives. By monitoring the kinds of surfing and comparison shopping that’s being done on in-store Wi-Fi, they can tweak their price and product mix. If you’re wandering around Target checking prices on Amazon, Target can sniff out which products you’re checking; it’s much more efficient than having a staffer follow you around.
The Wi-Fi Dilemma
Our results don’t include free Wi-Fi being offered by small, individual cafes, where there’s sometimes a little more drama around the Wi-Fi than you see at your average Starbucks.
That’s because offering Wi-Fi is a balancing act. It tends to attract individuals who want to use a cafe as their office, which means that they sit on laptops for long periods of time and take up tables that could otherwise be used by groups all ordering beverages together.
Dunkin’ moderates that fact, frankly, by making their interior decor a little hostile. This isn’t a knock on their coffee, but I take it to go. In some locations, they even enforce a 20-minute table turnover policy.
I’ve seen this drama play out at my local independent coffee shop, too, Espresso 77 in Queens, NY. Because the owners want their shop to be a place where people chat and interact, laptops are restricted to a central long table on weekdays and banned on weekends. They’re certainly losing some laptop users to the Starbucks down the street, but they’re gaining families who show up needing a table together.
So for a quick, highly caffeinated upload, Dunkin’ Donuts is your best bet. Stop by Starbucks or Peet’s for longer Wi-Fi work sessions. And if you’re headed to Caribou or The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf…stick to the coffee.
Is Free Wi-Fi Safe?
Public Wi-Fi is incredibly convenient, but it’s not necessarily secure. You don’t know who else might be on the network with you, and if they’re attempting to view your activity. The business providing the Wi-Fi may also be spying on you, to see what its customers are shopping for and make its own business decisions accordingly.
The best idea is to use a VPN when you’re on public Wi-Fi. VPNs encrypt your data as it travels over the public network, preventing the Wi-Fi provider from understanding what you’re doing. There are a number of good free VPNs available, but they all have trade-offs. If you’re willing to pay a little for security, check out our highest-rated VPN services, on any platform.
Where Do You Wi-Fi?
Our free Wi-Fi study involves tests taken on Android smartphones between August 1, 2017, and August 5, 2018. We’re planning to expand this study to other business categories over the rest of the year, so be sure to check back soon.