Fast-food diners get a break to sit, surf


DETROIT - For half a century, McDonald's asked us to grab our burgers and hit the road. Now the fast-food chain wants us to take a load off, boot up and surf the Web.

Last week, the world's largest restaurant chain - it has more than 30,000 locations worldwide - introduced high-speed wireless Internet access at 10 of its New York City locations. Soon the company will begin testing the service in several hundred locations in New York, Chicago and an as-yet-unnamed California city.

This is new territory for McDonald's. Other than the Playland playgrounds, almost everything else about the restaurants is geared to turning over the crowd quickly, smoothly and regularly.

The incongruity of inviting us to stick around means nothing to some Web fanatics.

"That'd be cool," said 13-year-old Chelsea Adler, who stopped at the McDonald's on the Wayne State University campus while on a field trip with classmates from Fuhrmann Middle School in Sterling Heights, Mich. "You'd be getting a free hour."

Kind of.

To get the free hour of Internet service, you have to buy an Extra Value Meal. Locally, that means $3.25-$4.75. Or if you're not in a fries-and-Big Mac mood, you can pay $3 an hour.

The concept is different from that of cybercafes, where a business maintains a small fleet of Internet-connected computers and charges a fee to use them. With the McDonald's plan, all that's provided is wireless access to the Internet. You bring your own wireless-ready laptop and you're good to go.

The largest market for the service is the massive group of Americans who spend at least part of their day working on the road. McDonald's estimates the pool to be 78 million strong.

The wireless concept is spreading rapidly in the nation's more cyber-savvy locales. The Seattle area, for instance, has hundreds of sites with wireless access, from hotels and coffeehouses - there are scores of participating Starbucks - to a pancake joint.

Skeptics see the marriage of McDonald's and wireless as a desperation move. Last month, the chain reported that sales at restaurants - open for at least 13 months - were down.

Some peg it instead as an attempt to reposition the company.

"I think McDonald's has to evolve," said John A. Kostecki, co-owner-operator of nine Detroit area McDonald's. "We have to move into the 21st century."

Or maybe the 48-year-old chain is in the throes of midlife crisis. For much of its life, it has lived - and thrived - on high-fat, high-cholesterol foods.

Now, much of the American public - still the largest chunk of McDonald's worldwide network - is interested in eating healthier foods. And McDonald's has responded, offering grilled chicken sandwiches and salads.

Of course, the changes have to be executed without alienating the mass of customers who still long for double cheeseburgers, supersize fries and fried apple pies.

The introduction of wireless access is just one more effort by the company to achieve what it calls "relevancy," a way to attract the increasingly large segment of the population wedded to its wireless communications appliances.

Not everyone is convinced.

"It's not going to fly," announced Keith McIntosh, 66, a retired construction worker from Clawson, Mich. He and his friends - as many as 15 of them - meet in a McDonald's in Royal Oak, Mich., every day. He gets a 50-cent cup of coffee -and, thanks to the free refills, can nurse it for the two to three hours he spends there every day.

"I think it would bring in the wrong kind of people," he said. "All those young people. This is a geezer club."

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