The surprising democratizing power of McDonald’s Wi-Fi

Those golden arches are actually a beacon of democracy.
Those golden arches are actually a beacon of democracy.
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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On Wednesday, two reporters covering the protests surrounding the fatal police shooting of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, were arrested—in a McDonald’s. Why were they there? One of the reporters, The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, says not for a Big Mac:

For the past week in Ferguson, reporters have been using the McDonald’s a few blocks from the scene of Michael Brown’s shooting as a staging area. Demonstrations have blown up each night nearby. But inside there’s WiFi and outlets, so it’s common for reporters to gather there.

The other reporter in the McDonald’s at the time, Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post, managed to tweet a photo of what was happening before he, too, was arrested.

The two reporters in Ferguson had discovered what many across the US already know—that the local McDonald’s is generally a good bet when you need free and convenient internet accessibility. McDonald’s branches in the US allow people to use their Wi-Fi for free, even without purchasing food. According to the Wall Street Journal, as of last year there were roughly 12,000 McDonald’s locations with free Wi-Fi in the US, almost as many as the 15,000 public libraries with Wi-Fi. And McDonald’s stays open much later than most public libraries—some even operate 24/7.

In low-income and rural areas where broadband Internet is either costly or simply not available, McDonald’s is sometimes the best local Wi-Fi destination. And McDonald’s Wi-Fi isn’t just widely accessible—it’s fast too. It has faster Wi-Fi than almost any other public in-store network that the app OpenSignal measured (other than Starbucks, which recently switched from AT&T to Google Wi-Fi). McDonald’s is the most popular fast food chain in the world, and while the majority of its customers go there to eat, more and more people seem to be showing up for its excellent internet access.

Say what you will about the nutritional and gustatory quality of McDonald’s; its food is affordable, expedient, and widely available. Its Wi-Fi is too, and that has turned the iconic American food chain into an exercise in open, democratic assembly.