Wi-Fi in Coffee Shops: The Digital Dichotomy

I was surprised the other day to walk into our local tire shop and find this sign on the door: “WIRELESS INTERNET AVAILABLE”.  It’s everywhere and is a service that is almost ubiquitous.

The coffee shop is a great place to study or meet people, but it's also a business that will remain viable only as long as people buy products when they visit.

The coffee shop is a great place to study or meet people, but it's also a business that will remain viable only as long as people buy products when they visit.

However more and more there is a trend arising that may surprise people: More and more coffee shops are pulling the plug on internet access or at least curtailing it’s usage.


It’s obvious.  The tire store doesn’t have a problem because you are already buying a service from them and will leave when your car is ready.

Coffee shops and restaurants on the other hand, are running into an issue in these down times as people come in, linger over a $1.80 cup of coffee for hours, taking up precious table space and in many cases also taking up valuable parking slots on the street from other potential customers. The only item they are consuming in any quantity is bandwidth.

However you might be surprised (or maybe not) to find out that a lot of people come in, log on and never buy anything. Nothing. We have even experienced cases where people stealthily sneak in their own food and drinks.  They are as the French say “le mou chers”.

Who raised these people?  It wasn’t my folks.

How do we deal with this?

First we have several in-your-face signs posted that say this:

Our Wireless Internet Access is Not Free.
It is a complimentary service we provide to purchasing customers only.
If you want to use our wireless internet and not buy our wonderful products
it costs $5 per hour and there is a two hour max.

Tough Love

Once in a while we run into the errant visitor that still doesn’t get it and we will go to them quietly and explain the policy.  Most of the time they buy something but in one or two cases they have actually gotten up and left.  No doubt in search of another free wi-fi gig in town.

Other solutions

On a recent trip to Birmingham we visited a popular coffee shop that has a great solution.

They have their internet routed through a service (like in hotels) and have a keypad by the register.  If you have purchased a product and ask for a key to get on the internet, they simply press the keypad which spits out a unique 64 bit key.  If on the other hand you come in and just ask for a key, they inform you you need to either buy something or pay a usage fee.  The key is good for two hours.  Slick.

Still other shops just flat out tape up all the outlets.  Now your only going to have internet as long as your battery lasts.  I know of one shop that has no outlets at all in the customer area.

Bottom Line

If you are one of those [rare] folks who uses the local coffee shop as an office/library extension but rarely buys anything (or worse yet asks the question that makes all baristas cringe, “Can I just have a cup of water?”) I recommend you do the following…..stop.

Support you local coffee shop and their desire to continue to provide you with the atmosphere that you can only get in a coffee shop: Buy their products each time you come in.

Please, don’t be  “le Mou Cher“.


Further reading:

Link to a Wall Street Journal article on this subject:  No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users

Magnation article: The Problem with Free Wi-Fi

Hub Pages: Problems and Solutions Free Wi-Fi Access at Cafes 74