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Is free Wi-Fi killing the coffeehouse?

Some shops are pulling the plug to make space for paying customers and change the ambience.

By Teresa Mears Aug 9, 2010 3:33PM

Coffee shops and free Wi-Fi once appeared to be the perfect match. Free Wi-Fi drew customers and made the shop seem cool. Even Starbucks finally inaugurated free wireless Internet service July 1 -- possibly influenced by the fact that McDonald's was offering cheaper coffee drinks AND free Wi-Fi.

The love affair may be over, at least in some shops. A number are pulling the plug on free Wi-Fi, saying it hurts business or detracts from the ambience they are trying to create.


"We just realized it was a mistake," Jeremy Tooker of Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco told Jessica Guynn of the Los Angeles Times. "People would just camp out for hours, literally eight hours on one cup of coffee. We only had 75 seats, and those were always full." Plus, he added, "It killed the vibe, too."

David Savlov of The Austin Chronicle offered a pained lament about what Wi-Fi is doing to coffeehouse culture after being forced to sit outside to read Jack Kerouac's "The Subterraneans" in the 102-degree Texas heat because all the indoor tables were taken by people with computers.

And is it just me, or is nobody in here talking to anyone else, like, at all? It's a coffeehouse, for crying out loud. Granted, it's 3 in the afternoon, but still ... shouldn't I be hearing the traditional, low background mutter of jittery, caffeine-jagged confabbery? Shouldn't someone, anyone, be saying something coffeehouse apropos, something intellectually fatuous and obscure but nevertheless intriguing, something like, "OK, I'm Dostoyevsky; you're Anna; we're writing 'The Gambler,'" or, "Who's ever written a great work about the immense effort required in order not to create?"

Coffeehouses and restaurants nationwide are struggling with whether and how to limit wireless use. Panera Bread, which offers free wireless, limits its use at lunchtime. Other establishments are cutting the wireless on evenings, weekends and other peak times, or limiting the number of hours a customer can use it. Some, like Tooker's San Francisco establishment, have cut it off completely.


At the Downbeat Café in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood, owners Dan and Nathalie Drozdenko heard from customers when their wireless Internet stopped working. Some were angry, but others were happy to find a wireless-free zone.


"People come here because we don't offer it," Dan Drozdenko told the L.A. Times. "They know they can get their work done and not get distracted."

At some coffee shops, computer bans extend to Kindles and iPads, which work whether there is free wireless or not.


Employees of two cafes in New York told Nick Bilton of The New York Times Bits blog that his Kindle and iPad were not allowed in their computer-free space. He argues that those devices should be afforded the same courtesy as a coffeehouse would afford a paper book or notepad. He wrote:

I wonder if people went through the same thing in the mid-1400s as they sat in coffee shops with their pesky paper books? I can imagine a coffee shop owner demanding that a patron remove his book from an establishment that only allowed spoken communication.

Aymar Jean Christian at Splice Today blames New York's pricey real estate, not free wireless, for killing the coffeehouse culture, and also points out the difficulty of mixing free Wi-Fi with a business that needs to make a profit.

New York coffee culture has definitely clamped down on what I consider most valuable, next to the coffee itself: free Wi-Fi. Stories abound about business owners cutting back on the apparent luxury, much to the ire of its customers, especially students. I don't blame them, really. The truth is Wi-Fi makes customers take up space without buying anything. Who wants that?

If you're looking for free Wi-Fi and you can't get a seat at Starbucks or your favorite neighborhood java joint, Paul Taylor of PT Money lists more places where you can find free Wi-Fi.


What do you think? Is free wireless killing coffeehouse culture or is it an integral part of what makes a great coffeehouse in 2010? Do you take your computer to cafes to work? Do you make it a point to spend some money while you're there? Or would you rather everyone else did their work at home or in the office?


More from MSN Money:

Feb 15, 2012 5:22PM
Why not setup the routers to only allow 30 minute connections. I frequently go to a place of business, so I can sit for a few minutes (usually in transit) and catch up on email... All I need is 30 minutes tops. Kill my wifi after that for a 24 hour period (or whatever). I like free wifi. I use it while i sit and I probably will skip a place that doesn't offer - in favor of one that does.
Dec 4, 2010 4:50PM
what if some of these places had a one time use code on each cup that allowed them to use the wi-fi because they were a paying customer. ive seen so many people order a water (free) and just sit on their laptop for hours. just a thought. not a bad idea imo
Dec 4, 2010 12:11PM
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