The case for turning McDonald’s into a telecom company: Peter Nowak

Hey, Nokia started out as a pulp mill

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McDonald’s sign against blue sky

(Justin Sullivan/Getty)

One person no one really wants to be right now is Donald Thompson, the chief executive of McDonald’s. Talk about being under fire from every quarter.

The megalith restaurant chain has been facing quarter after quarter of disappointing sales, with the latest global monthly decline of 2.5 per cent the worst it has seen since 2003. The slow burn is likely the result of an overcomplicated menu, but some pundits are going as far as suggesting that people are starting to get over fast food entirely.

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Then there’s the ongoing labour dispute where minimum wage workers are demanding pay raises. As one of the biggest employers of such workers, McDonald’s has become a lightning rod for the movement, which continues to build steam around the world.

Then there’s the tainted meat scandal in China, where several fast food companies – led by McDonald’s – had to all but shut down their menus because of contaminated product from suppliers.

And, as if to pour sodium on the wounds, the burger chain has also managed to tick off Instagram users by invading their feeds with paid ads.

While McDonald’s has long told customers that they deserve a break today, it seems that the company itself can’t catch a break.

Or can it?

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The lone bit of good news for McDonald’s comes from OpenSignal, a group dedicated to mapping wireless and wi-fi networks in the United States. In the same report that found hotel internet service correlates strongly with room prices, the group also discovered that McDonald’s has some of the best wi-fi around.

In fact, the chain’s wi-fi doesn’t just perform better than other fast-food chains, it also outclasses the likes of Best Buy. You know, the place where they sell things that connect to the internet:

Chart showing McDonald’s wi-fi speed versus competitors Tim Hortons, Dunkin Donuts, Panera, Target, Lowes and Best Buy

The results harken a potential future for McDonald’s. If the company can’t do anything right in the food department, perhaps a Silicon Valley-esque pivot is called for? What if the chain reoriented to become an internet provider?

McDonald’s could use its thousands of restaurants as nodes and build a wi-fi cloud, then charge people to connect. If it was good enough with solid range, speed and bandwidth, it could act as an alternative to existing providers.

Here’s what a U.S. coverage map could look like, based on the locations of its restaurants:

Map of the United States showing glowing dots for every McDonald’s location

That looks a little similar to a cellular carrier’s coverage map, doesn’t it?

Cellular coverage map for AT&T

Major pivots aren’t unheard of. Finland’s Nokia was a pulp mill company well before it got into mobile phones while Nintendo started as a playing card maker years before becoming a video game power.

McDonald’s, for its part, has never really been all that married to food. As one-time CEO Harry Sonneborn revealed in the book Behind the Arches, at least some executives have considered the company to be a real estate broker first and a fast-food peddler second.

So how about it—rather than selling Big Macs, maybe McDonald’s could instead serve up Big Megs?

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