Mobile // Mobile Applications
Commentary
7/12/2006
06:54 PM
Patricia Keefe
Patricia Keefe
Commentary
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Wi-Fi And The Freeloaders

The latest chapter in high-tech rudeness involves a battle brewing between steaming café and coffee shop owners and Wi-Fi freeloading laptop users. The problem is that some laptop users see nothing wrong with turning their corner coffee bars into extensions of their office--if not their actual office. They come in to take advantage of the free Internet access and end up displacing the paying clientele by hogging tables for hours while spending next to nothing. And they think nothing of it.

The latest chapter in high-tech rudeness involves a battle brewing between steaming café and coffee shop owners and Wi-Fi freeloading laptop users. The problem is that some laptop users see nothing wrong with turning their corner coffee bars into extensions of their office--if not their actual office. They come in to take advantage of the free Internet access and end up displacing the paying clientele by hogging tables for hours while spending next to nothing. And they think nothing of it.Exasperated shopkeepers are striking back. At least one peeved shop has called the cops. In this case, the man reportedly spent three months hanging out in the parking lot sucking up the coffee shop's free Wi-Fi signal, but never bought anything. Told by the police to stop, he persisted and has since been charged with theft of services. The case in turn has debate percolating over whether you can be arrested for using free Wi-Fi signals. (Apparently you can.)

But most coffee shops try the subtle approach, pressing freeloaders to buy something or move along if they've been there a while. Some, though, are taking the more drastic step of pulling the plug on Wi-Fi access--a competitive advantage--during the lunch period. Some are even starting to charge for access. Not that that will necessarily change any behaviors.

In a story in the July 9 Boston Globe, one woman gushes that she "practically lives" at one café, spending up to 30 hours a week there. She does spend money there, about $74 a month total for food and Internet access, but frankly admits it's a bargain, being that it's far cheaper than shelling out for actual office space. I'll say: At 30 hours a week for $74 a week, that comes out to about $2.46 an hour for free Wi-Fi, electricity, a "desk," heat/AC, office space, and a place to hang your coat. You can barely park for $2 an hour in parts of Boston! Maybe she should try imagining a conversation between herself and the café owners. Here's how I think it would go:

"Hi, mind if I use one of your booths on a daily basis as my office?"

"Uh, yeah, I do! You see, this...is...a...coffee shop."

(Blinks blankly) "What's your point?"

Another customer probably spoke for many laptop users when he rationalized his use of the coffee shop as an extension of his home office by saying he works better with other people around. (Hmm, maybe he should rethink his telecommuting instead.)

A whiney transplanted Californian meanwhile expressed outrage in the same article that some café owners are (sputter) resorting to charging (a pittance I might add) for Internet access and sniffs that if he has pay to for Internet access, well then, he doesn't feel compelled to buy anything else! The fees I've read about, by the way, run $13 or $14 a month. That's about $0.46 a day--more cause for rejoicing than outrage if you ask me.

But it's the folks who slither into their free Wi-Fi connection complete with a cup of someone else's coffee at their side that take the cake for gall.

What the freeloaders don't seem to get is that the free Wi-Fi is meant to draw in customers who will, sure, stay and access the Net, but also spend money commensurate with the time they spend there. I guess it only takes a few self-centered souls to ruin it for everyone.

A side issue related to the freeloaders is the worry by some owners that all that "work" can kill or dampen the social atmosphere of many coffee shops. You have to wonder how many of these freeloading laptop users compound the issue by yakking on their cell phone for the duration of their stay. Bring on the cell phone sections!

Of course, self-centered behavior and a lack of manners are hardly limited to freeloading laptop users or obnoxious cell phone use. The era of the digital camera and camera phone, while having many positive uses, has also helped create high-tech harassment and assault and brought about intrusive and unwanted image-taking and posting. Between that and the nonschool use of phones, a number of states and school districts have banned cell phones on campus and are only now starting to reassess.

For some people, fighting fire with fire is the best approach. If the problem is high-tech, make the solution high-tech. This is how we came to cell phone-jamming devices and, more recently, how we came to a device invented at Georgia Tech that disables digital cameras. The system uses off-the-shelf equipment--camera-mounted sensors, lighting equipment, a projector, and a PC--to scan for, locate, and disable digital cameras. The GT associate professor behind the project, Gregory Abowd, believes a commercial product could be as close as a year away.

There's already another way to prevent camera phones from taking pictures, but it requires software that has to be loaded onto the camera for the blocking feature to work. Hardy practical or likely. Excuse me, can I put this photo-blocking software on your camera?

The device has all kinds of government and commercial uses, but also raises concerns about criminal use--for example, disabling all those security cameras that are proliferating in cities around the country. But Abowd says his technology can actually secure those cameras. We'll see.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder, what's next? A device that can disable or erase video on the Internet? It seems inevitable, doesn't it?

But back to the coffee drinkers. Should people who use free Wi-Fi be expected to spend money in the establishments supplying the signal, or at least be sensitive to heavy business periods? Is it reasonable to turn the corner coffee shop into an extension of your office on a regular basis? Should you be able to arrest someone for taking advantage of a Wi-Fi signal that is, after all, being offered free? And if you shell out $14 a month to use such a signal, are you justified in spending however much time you want in the café? Tell us what you think.

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