Facebook helps some local businesses provide free Wi-Fi in exchange for check-ins

Facebook is testing a new service that allows local businesses to offer customers free Wi-Fi after checking in on the social network, the company tells us.

For this small test, Facebook is supplying the router but businesses are providing the Internet access. When visitors check into a location on Facebook, they are redirected to the business’ Facebook page and can continue to browse the web for free. Page owners will be able to track how many new Likes they received from people who took advantage of this service. Visitors who don’t wish to check in can request a passcode from the local business to connect to the network anyway.

Developer Tom Waddington, who also discovered Facebook testing the Want button plugin and possibly promoted messages, first tipped us off to this when he found a new entry called “social wifi” in the “Like sources” section of the Insights API. The explanation for the entry is “People who liked your page after checking in via Facebook Wi-Fi.”

Facebook confirmed to us in a statement, “We are currently running a small test with a few local businesses of a Wi-Fi router that is designed to offer a quick and easy way to access free Wi-Fi after checking in on Facebook. When you access Facebook Wi-Fi by checking in, you are directed to your local business’s Facebook Page.”

This is similar to a service provided by HotspotSystem also called “Social Wi-Fi,” but Facebook says it does not have a connection with that company.

Waddington correctly speculated whether Facebook was testing Like-gated free Wi-Fi, though he also wondered if this was part of a bigger effort where page owners of local businesses would be able to associate their Wi-Fi hotspots with their Facebook page. Then, a prompt on the Facebook homepage might suggest Wi-Fi users become a fan of the page. This could be an interesting ad type in the future, but it doesn’t seem to be what Facebook is testing now.

It’s important to note that Facebook Wi-Fi is a limited test that is not necessarily going to be rolled out wider any time soon. We’ve heard that this began as a hackathon project.

[Update: Rakesh Agrawal, an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social and mobile, wrote an interesting post last year about how Google or Facebook could improve local search by sending routers to businesses.]