McDonald's, Nintendo Team Up for Gaming Wi-Fi at Restaurants

It's always a happy meal when you can beat another fast-food junkie at video games without paying for the Wi-Fi network you're playing on.

That's what restaurant giant McDonald's Corp. (search) is betting with a new deal announced Tuesday along with Nintendo Co. (search) and Wayport Inc. (search )

Through the agreement, McDonald's will offer free Wi-Fi access (search) to owners of the Nintendo DS mobile gaming system starting next month, using Wayport's existing wireless network at some 6,000 of the hamburger chain's locations.

The offer is being promoted as part of Nintendo's launch of its Wi-Fi Connection service on Nov. 14, which allows owners of its DS system to play games head-to-head, much like Microsoft's xBox Live service allows broadband users to link their video game consoles online.

Nintendo's iconic Mario Kart franchise will be the first title to allow for play over the Wi-Fi service, along with Activision's Tony Hawk American SK8Land, and future titles such as Animal Crossing, Wild World and Metroid Prime Hunters.

Nintendo gamers using the McDonald's hookup will be able to launch into the worldwide WiFi Connection network, or play locally against other people in a restaurant location.

Spokesmen for Nintendo labelled the deal as a great way to get additional users into the Wi-Fi service, and to introduce them to some of the online gaming capabilites it plans to offer in its Revolution gaming console, which will launch sometime in 2006.

"We see this as a fabulous opportunity to get the system out there and get people playing DS over WiFi for free," said Nintendo's Beth Llewelyn. "We know that video games and McDonald's can serve as an attractive combination for our customers."

The Tokyo-based gaming company has previously announced plans to launch 1,000 Wi-Fi hot spots in Japanese toy stores and department stores in order to encourage users of the DS to try out the service, and new games it introduces for the device.

Wayport, which claims to operate the largest consumer WiFi network in the U.S., is working to expand its presence beyond airports, where it has set up a number of access locations, and planning to deploy wireless services at other well-known consumer locales including the restaurants of flapjack servers IHOP Corp. (search )

Dan Lowden, vice president of marketing for Wayport, said that the company will continue to strike deals with high-profile consumer brands in order to attract more users to its network. The company will also look to attract users of other devices, he said.

"Our vision and McDonald's vision is to offer this service on a broad scale to a variety of partners and devices, and the Nintendo DS package is a great fit," Lowden said. "Up until now, people have primarily used notebook computers to access Wi-Fi, and that's still growing quickly, but the increasing use of handhelds, gaming devices, mp3 players and cameras with Wi-Fi is expanding our opportunity exponentially."

While Wayport, Austin, Texas, doesn't break out the traffic numbers for its McDonald's network, which was launched in early 2004, Lowden said that a total of 2.3 million people connected to its networks at the fast food chain and its airport systems during the second quarter of 2005. The company is expecting to deliver over 8 million connections for the year.

Industry watchers said that deals such as the Nintendo-McDonald's partnership are unlikely to result in significant growth of the Wi-Fi market, but observed that such agreements illustrate the growing pervasiveness of the wireless technology.

According to Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass., 20 percent of all consumers are using a wireless device to surf the Internet today, a whopping 145 percent increase since 2003.

"This is another example that people are expecting connectivity everywhere," said Ellen Daley, analyst with Forrester. "Mobility is creeping into every part of our lives, and if kids are expecting wireless to do gaming and other high speed data services at someplace like McDonald's, it suggests that other restaurants and consumer businesses will add Wi-Fi too."

In addition to places that aim to draw younger consumers such as fast food restaurants, the analyst said that department stores and retailers hoping to attract parents are likely to add Wi-Fi to keep people in their stores longer. While providing a diversion for people uninterested in shopping, the services will also offer information on products to prospective buyers.

For Wayport, Daley said, the challenge remains finding a way to make money off of users who don't pay anything to access its services. And with an increasing number of retailers, cities and other organizations promising free Wi-Fi access, the obstacle won't disappear soon, said the analyst.

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