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Free wifi cafe culture begins to create friction

The Boston Globe [via Ars Technica] has an article about Cafe owners (and customers) beginning to change their views on the provision of free wifi.

This is of great interest to me because a) I love coffee and b) I love the cafe culture of San Francisco. Here in London there is little free wifi – and in such a dense capital cafe owners give little encouragement to stay beyond the bottom of your cup as they try to create churn. Hard seats, uncomfortable seats and loud music are examples of methods employed to this end.

Back to the US, The Globe cites the issue of free-loaders who don’t buy anything and either sit outside in their vehicles or even worse occupy a table in the cafe without the purchase of a beverage (caffeinated or otherwise).

Other issues raised by coffee houses include the off putting ‘sea of laptop screens’ and the breakdown of the social aspect of cafe culture as people concentrate on the contents of their screens and not the customers around them.

On the first point, that of free-loaders, I’m really not convinced. I’m actually surprised that more cafe’s don’t employ some method of authentication to weed out such cases. It could be anything from cycling the network password each day (with the current one written on a blackboard in the cafe) through to using something like NoCatAuth to manage users/challenge a code be entered.

And as for people sitting in a cafe without buying anything, that’s hardly a software issue. Pick ’em up, tell ’em it’s not on and kick ’em out… Simple.

But the social issues raised are of interest. I do think there is some mileage in the argument.

Here’s a photo from my Flickr of us in my favourite coffee shop in the world, Ritual Roasters. Check some more random photos from the place [1],[2],[3]… It’s a sea of laptops and not exactly the most social environment. In fact, despite the ambiance of the place, it’s atmosphere is only a notch above the horrid and skuzzy EasyEverything net cafes.

I guess it depends on what you want from your local cafe, but I can see why those who choose not to use cafes as mobile offices might be peeved.

Students, the self-employed, etc want a cheap place to work, with some level of interaction above sitting in an empty living room or office cubical.

It sounds to me like Chris’s Teh Space cooperative shared working space idea is a candidate answer to this, and should really be rolled out to more areas.

UPDATE: Tara Hunt reports lack of free wifi in coffee shops in Calgary, AB.

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  1. If your own your own then I think fine, coffee shop and wifi is a good thing. Cant think of anything worse than going to a coffee shop with my other half whilst we both (or one of us) puters away – my life (and i expect a lot of peoples) is filled with computers 24/7 so the chance to steal away some time to relax, have a drink and spend some time with someone is nice.

    Supply and Demand..
    Maybe wifi in London isn’t so huge since the demand isnt huge. We dont have a coffee shop culture (much of one anyway) and the idea of using your laptop whilst having a drink hasnt caught on yet. I’d also summise that the ratio of people owning a laptop in London versus the bay area is very different..

  2. Same over here in Brussels (Belgium). There are maybe 4 or 5 cafes that have installed Wifi for customers, a dozen where you can hitch onto some neighbour’s open Wifi and that’s about it. Most bar owners I talk about it are 1) afraid of the sea of screens, 2) afraid of Wifi trolls (sit next door and download Bittorrent all the time), 3) afraid of the technical challenges. I thought FON might be a way to resolve that, but I’m not too sure they will popular enough.

    The only alternative we have is Telenet/Skynet at outrageous prices (e.g. 20 euro/day ).

  3. Noel Noel

    I have to hold my hand up as one of those people who ventures up the road to sit in my local coffee shop and work from there (I do buy lots of coffee). I am starting a company so have no office except my cellar at home, and there is only so much time i can spend there before I go M@d… so please don’t gang up on us home workers for wanting some social interaction whilst working… I have started to make friends with the staff and fellow home workers and even some of the regular mums and pentioners as well… so I am making an effort to “fit in” and be a responcible coffee client :^) Honest…

  4. I’m American, but in Brussels, Belgium, for several months. When I inquired at a local coffee shop–Cafe’ Belga–about whether they had considered offering customers wifi, I received a rather abrupt, “because we don’t want you here.” I confess, I was speechless! Where I am from–Portland, Oregon–we have coffee and free wifi on every corner! It is a no-brainer!

    Very surprised to find that Europe is so “un-hip!”

    In response to James’ post, I wonder if he has checked out ClearWire? I’m not here long enough to have it make sense for me, but the concept sounds great! WIFI “to go!”

  5. aisha aisha

    I have to empathise with Noel’s comment…. I also work from home and often find that I have to work from a coffee shop (for my own sanity), and sometimes struggle with the whole free wif-fi issue. It seems to be becoming more common practice for coffee shops in London to have free wifi, especially independant coffee shops as they are trying to compete with the big global giants.

  6. Great post!

    I’m wondering whether internet is more expensive in the U.K. than in the U.S. for the coffee shop owner.

    I for one am a wifi coffee shop fan. 🙂

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