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Stop Worrying, and Learn to Love Free WiFi

Inspired by David Precht’s great article on Medium about the ethics of using coffee shops, I really wanted to look at this idea of using free Wi-Fi in these sorts of establishments.  As a coffee lover, blogger, and a rather rabid Internet user, I’m likely the target. With more and more of us working for ourselves from home, we’re increasingly plunking our collective butts down in the local Starbucks, ordering a drink and connecting. By my count, the numbers of coffee shops and fast-food chains that offer free Wi-Fi in Canada are increasing rapidly. In fact, I am sitting in a coffee shop as I write this.

In short: How much time is too much time in a coffee shop? How do they see us WiFi users? Where do we draw the line at Internet use in an establishment that offers free Wifi?

It really wasn’t that long ago, some three years or less, when it was rare to find a location that offered free Internet access. Then, pioneered by Starbucks, an incredible shift to mobile computing, and improving Wi-Fi technology; access locations started popping up all over the place. In the beginning, few people used this service – so it was often very easy to get a good seat near a power outlet and start banging on the keyboard. Fast forward to 2013, and a Starbucks location (like the one at Milner and McCowan) fills up very quickly and it’s a good bet that you won’t find a single seat after 4 pm.

What we’re faced with is a service that cannot improve capacity (Starbucks isn’t going to rebuild the entire store) and the economics of offering a service for free on the implied basis of a (or multiple) purchase. Surely, the idea is to get people into an establishment, keep them there, and ultimately have them continue to buy products. We aren’t signing contracts that give us X gigabytes of data or a block of time for each purchase, or are we?

The idea of how time or data from a single coffee or food purchase feels like the wrong way of looking at this. Yes, we do get to spend time online when buying a drink, but the economics set up by the food chains themselves dictate specific freedom. Let’s face it – it’s built into the cost of your purchases. You could sit outside the front of a Tim Hortons, connect to the network and stand there for an hour and pay for nothing. If an establishment is going to offer up that specific scenario, who are we to balk at someone taking advantage of it? The market itself will decide whether this service becomes paid or remains free.

The idea that we should think about those that run the establishment and be concerned with their welfare is misguided. Every establishment is going to sell every product they have in a manner to maximize profits, remain competitive, and improve customer satisfaction. This is why the dining room stays clean. This is why they are nice to us. This is why special discounts and promotions exist. This is why they clean washrooms. We are free to simply urinate or go full-on number two explosion in a toilet if we wanted. It’s part of the basic services provided by a location to make the place appealing (granted, some locations do better than others). We aren’t going to start talking about being compassionate by peeing less in a Starbucks washroom, are we?

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit and speak with someone who works at an unnamed large Canadian coffee shop chain and asked if they had a pre-set policy in place for the length of time people take on computers. The answer surprised me: There is no policy in place, nor is there an un-said or assumed policy for when to usher these people out for overuse.

This made me wonder, are there tactics coffee shops use to keep people moving? Indeed, these appear to be things that many of today’s coffee shops do to keep us from working there all day.

1. Loud Music – I see this at Starbucks most often, the music is so loud making to impossible to make phone calls. Often the playlist is in heavy repeat mode so it starts getting on your nerves after an hour. Also in this category: Keeping the temperature too high or too low, or blowing fans directly on a seating area.

2. Limiting Connection Length – A subtle cue to leave, often coffee shop’s Internet connections will disconnect you after a 2-hour timeframe, forcing a simple reconnect process. But, like a waitress that stops serving coffee in a breakfast place, it’s often a subtle signal to move on.

3. No/Limited Power Outlets – The typical coffee shop may have one or two outlets, and newly constructed shops seem to have more. But, the more savvy coffee shops are working to place furniture in a way that limits access to power outlets. Given most computers can’t get past a 3-4 hour charge window, that’ll force you to move on.

4. Group (or cramped) seating – Often a function of space limitations, I can see how creating a large shared seating space (without access to power outlets) would encourage users to move on quicker while increasing the sound of chatter.

5. Reboot the Access Point  – I have spent marathon hours in coffee shops, and sometimes, for inexplicable reasons, the access point goes dead and the connection needs a few minutes to come back. This could just be a simple malfunction or a message to leave.

Certainly, all of this funnels into calls for “ethical” use of WiFi connections in coffee shops. Are we to superficially control ourselves and limit the time we spend at a coffee shop? The answer is yes, but because you’re out at a coffee shop, not because you’re concerned about the shop’s costs. There will be a natural balance that dictates either of the two outcomes. First, the costs of providing WiFi will be so high that this service will stop, or secondly, new realities will assist the use of transient connections (already happening with mobile devices). In time, we may see further shorthand for what gets us to leave our seats. But, if the coffee shop offers free Wi-Fi, don’t worry, just use it.