“It is an Art, the ability to nurse a single cup of coffee through an entire ten-hour day…” —Jean Shepard, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash Shepard wrote those words some 40 years ago, wryly observing how, for the cost of a cup of joe, a New York panhandler could manage to stake out a seat at the city’s long-gone Horn & Hardart Automat on a cold December day. Now, much to the consternation of local coffee shop proprietors, too many laptop users have rediscovered Shepard’s lost art. Glenn Fleishman at Wi-Fi Net News has glommed onto a trend where cafes who once hoped to boost business by offering free WiFi, are pulling the plug on their hotspots. Seems that too many WiFi users, come in, order nary more than a coffee and a Danish, then camp for hours, taking up tables that could otherwise seat four or more. Meanwhile, other regulars are complaining that the social ambience of their favorite java haunt is being replaced with the incessant keyboard clicking and quiet coldness of office cubicule culture. A number of cafes in Seattle, as well as other cities, have begun to cut back hours when free WiFi is available, if they haven’t killed free WiFi outright. This has triggered some tension between those who take advantage of the service and those who don’t. At least until now the proprietor could make the decision on how to balance customer amenities, the environment of the shop, and value of WiFi to the bottom line. With municipalities making free service available, especially in commercial areas of town, the cafe owner has no hot spot to turn off when parties of four and six can’t get a table because someone’s using it as makeshift office. Fleishman reports that a Panera in Santa Monica, concerned that solitary WiFi users were hogging too much table space during the lunchtime peak, now shuts off its hot spot between 12 and 2 p.m. No problem, writes Gahtain’s Technology and Internet Law Blog, the source of the report. “Since the City of Santa Monica operates their own free municipal WiFi service in the 3rd Street Promenade district and other downtown areas (along with nearby Culver City, Burbank and West Hollywood), I guess customers can simply switch service providers during that period.”
Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.