Cream, Sugar, and a High-Speed Connection


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On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, in the middle of a patchy square of lawn that fronts a fading seaside motel, a plywood sign emblazoned with orange spray-paint letters announces the motel’s latest amenity: free Wi-Fi. A continent away, in the gray outer reaches of San Francisco, in a part of town where tiny, dingy laundromats outnumber Starbucks by a ratio of about five to zero, the tiniest, dingiest laundromat in the neighborhood displays a similar notice in its smudgy front window. This sign is fashioned from laser paper rather than plywood, but the slapdash aesthetic and straightforward message are the same: free Wi-Fi.


In between these two down-market outposts of communitarian idealism, approximately 42,361 other establishments — including a truck stop in Gila Bend, Arizona; the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky; and the oldest strip club in Silicon Valley, the Brass Rail — offer free Wi-Fi now. According to a recent press release from mobile advertising company JiWire, the number of free Wi-Fi hotspots in the U.S. surpassed the number of paid Wi-Fi spots for the first time ever in the second quarter of 2010.

Two major providers who previously charged customers for Wi-Fi are largely responsible for this shift. In January, McDonald’s started rollling out free Wi-Fi in 11,500 U.S. locations. Starbucks followed suit in July, announcing plans to provide free Wi-Fi in 6,800 of its U.S. stores. This was, of course, a terrible blow to the cultural vanguard that likes its techno-utopianism with a shot of elitism. Free Wi-Fi is now as hip as a glass of tap water.

A decade ago, it was different. Free Wi-Fi was better than rainbows and full moons, a gift from a benevolent universe that cost nothing, provided great pleasure, and was genuinely useful to boot. Only six or seven years earlier, it cost $3.50 per hour to spend all night in your living room exploring the pervy but circumscribed hedges of AOL’s walled garden at 28.8 bits per second. And now, suddenly, the entire Internet was free, at 11 megabits per second, in venues where there was always plenty of hot coffee and baked goods on hand. Free chips and salsa were nice perks, but no diced tomato in the land that could tell you the current stock price of Cisco.

What made free Wi-Fi even better was the fact that various outfits were hoping to charge for it — and not nominal fees, but ridiculous, opportunistic fees. In August 2002, Starbucks (in partnership with T-Mobile) started offering Wi-Fi in 1,200 of its stores at $2.99 for 15 minutes or $29.99 a month. Where others saw a communications revolution, a chance to make the Internet pervasively accessible, Starbucks saw a chance to coerce consumer loyalty through a predatory pricing scheme that was so criminally overpriced for one-time use that a customer was inclined to choose the more reasonably overpriced monthly package (and thus frequent Starbucks stores for the next 30 days).

“Wireless is about freedom: no walls, no charges,” exclaimed technology entrepreneur Michael Oh in a 2002 Boston Globe article. To literally send a “signal to large corporations that charging extravagant fees for wireless is wrong,” Oh set up a Wi-Fi antenna in his Saturn coupe and parked it in front of a local Starbucks. Anyone within 150 feet, including the coffee shop’s customers, could access the Internet for free.

Starbucks’ embrace of paid Wi-Fi gave independent cafes an easy, plug-and-play way to establish their more enlightened commitment to the great coffeehouse traditions of broad and vital discourse and unfettered expression. These cafes used free Wi-Fi to show they weren’t as interested in extracting the maximum amount of profit from their customers as were the venti greedheads at Starbucks. All across the land, independent coffeehouses gave back to the community.

Unfortunately, the community’s appetite for bandwidth often exceeded its appetite for coffee by many orders of magnitude. In 2005, the New York Times published an article about a Seattle café that had started to turn off its free Wi-Fi on the weekends. Like many other cafés around the country, it had discovered that free Wi-Fi meant more than just a commitment to freedom. It also meant a commitment to freeloaders — lone customers who occupied tables for hours at a time without purchasing anything more than a cup of coffee. It meant skyrocketing electricity bills.

But it wasn’t just bottom-line practicalities that concerned one-time advocates of free Wi-Fi. It was also the kind of customer that free Wi-Fi attracted. They were boring. The owners of the Seattle café fretted about the lack of “lively interaction” that characterized their business during periods of free Wi-Fi. Another café owner quoted in the piece summarized this new take on the impact of a technology that just a few years earlier carried substantial forward-thinking cachet: “When you show up here and there’s row upon row of laptop users, it just kind of kills the mood.”

Cafes, especially the hippest, most fashionable cafes, have always been venues for conspicuous contemplation as much as for public discourse — places to read Camus’ most obscure collections of essays, places to doodle evocatively in your large Moleskin notebook. In addition, it’s not as if no one had ever thought to bring a laptop into a café before the days of Wi-Fi. What’s different about Wi-Fi users, though, is the possibility that they’re rejecting the immediate social milieu of the coffeehouse not for private contemplation but rather for the mediated social milieu of the Internet. If coffeehouses were the Internet of the 18th century, hubs for the dissemination of news and ideas, then the Internet’s just a better coffeehouse. And every customer tapping silently on his laptop is a reminder to every customer who isn’t that the discourse is more engrossing elsewhere.

When the cultural vanguard was doing the typing, this was barely tolerable. When free Wi-Fi became as common as fixed gear bikes, it grew less so. Today, from the Blue Bottle Café in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood to Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco’s Mission District, the places that deploy the fussiest coffee-making technologies and attract the most forward-thinking cultural tastemakers, the places that take the greatest pains to emphasize the non-commercial meaningfulness of the goods and services they purvey and the ambiance they carefully hand-craft, implement a no Wi-Fi policy. “We don’t glare at someone with a laptop,” the owner of Four Barrel recently told the Los Angeles Times. “But we don’t cater to that person either.”

Indeed, while free public access to a vast information commons may be a noble, progressive idea, it’s also kind of played out. Tacky, even; yesterday’s trend. Best leave it to the greedy corporate bastards who still believe that connecting people around the world without constraints imposed by meddlers and profiteers is a virtuous pursuit. • 31 August 2010