Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Wi-Fi wars

Loiterers can be a drag on businesses' bottom line

Some wireless users sneak in their own food with their laptops. Others buy one cup of coffee at 9 a.m. and surf the Net until closing time. And the truly audacious sit for hours without making any pretense of a purchase.

In and around Boston, cafe owners who installed wireless signals to draw customers say they also are drawing Internet users who tie up seats for hours, buy little or nothing, and make coffee shops feel like the office as they tap away at their laptops. Now some owners are fighting back by charging for wireless access, shutting off their signal at peak business hours, or telling loitering laptoppers to shell out or ship out.

``There comes a time when you have to tell people, `Look, you've been here for three hours, and you've bought only a cup of coffee and it's time to move,' " said Adam Goldberg , owner of Emack & Bolio's in Jamaica Plain. ``We had points in time when people would sit for six or seven hours and not buy anything."

Goldberg, whose shop offers all-day free wireless, has tried to set time limits for customers to use the Internet. He has considered shutting off the signal during busy hours. Instead, he has chosen to keep a vigilant eye on the seating area and confront Internet idlers.

Cafe owners said they must determine which kind of Internet service -- paid or free -- will be most profitable, a calculation based largely on the number of seats and neighborhood competition. Owners of venues that offer free wireless believe it makes them attractive to customers. Shops that charge for wireless bank that they will make more from the access fees than they would in the additional traffic a free signal might bring. But in both paid and free hot spots, owners become concerned when tables are commandeered for hours and new customers cannot find seats.

In Davis Square, Diesel Cafe charges for wireless -- about $14 a month -- but co-owner Jen Park said she also confronts customers who are not buying food. Perhaps the worst offenders are the people who buy coffee at the Starbucks across Elm Street, then head for the comfortable red booths at Diesel with their Starbucks cup in hand, she said.

``My approach tends to be friendly, like `Can I get you anything?' " Park said. ``Usually, the answer is `no.' Sometimes people understand where I'm going and say they're going to come up [and buy something] once their friend gets here. Then there are some people who get offended and leave."

Some frequent customers at Wi-Fi cafes believe they have a right to surf without purchasing. At the 1369 Coffee House in Central Square, Hani Salehi , 27, a recent transplant from California, said he was shocked to discover how many Boston-area cafes charge for their Internet signals. In California, he said, more places offer signals for free, and in those establishments, he always bought something to eat or drink.

``If I pay for the Internet, I feel no obligation to spend more," Salehi said last Sunday .

Up the street in Davis Square, O'Naturals offers wireless as a free amenity, but recently began shutting off its signal during its busiest hours. Manager Sonja Seglin said laptop users used to linger on a single cup of coffee during lunch, leaving nowhere for newcomers to eat their soups and sandwiches. The lunch crowd complained, and O'Natural's now shuts off its Wi-Fi access from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

But cafe owners who are watching their bottom lines have noticed another side effect of wireless: Their coffee shops are starting to look and sound less like social spots and more like offices.

``Wireless has changed the atmosphere here," Park said . ``You see a lot more people buried in their computers as opposed to reading and chatting."

Many are students or self-employed. Jami Brandli , a writer and instructor at Emerson College, spends 25 to 30 hours a week with her computer at Diesel. ``This has become my office," she said gesturing at the red booths, black tables, and fellow laptop users .

The way Brandli sees it, Diesel offers ``a bargain" as far as workspaces go: Each month, she spends about $60 on food, plus $14 for the internet, much less than the cost of renting an office in Davis Square.

Some worry that wireless cafes are, like cell phones and iPods, one more way for 21st century Bostonians to tune out the larger world. But the laptoppers offer the reverse argument: they make work more fun by doing it in a social place. Srini Turaga , a graduate student at MIT, has an office, but prefers working at the 1369 Coffee House in Central Square.

``Sitting in my office by myself, I can't get work done," said Turaga, 26, who sat in 1369 last Sunday afternoon with an iced tea and his computer.

He finds it easier to work with people around him, and called 1369's blend of soft lighting, abundant power outlets, and other laptop users the perfect balance. ``This is kind of a work-like coffee shop," he said.

Turaga, who pays $13 a month to use 1369's wireless, said he also feels compelled to spend on food and drink. ``I do make sure I'm always drinking something."