Is it time to say goodbye to Free Wi-Fi?

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I remember back in 2002 – I walked into a Starbucks, because I’d heard it was just wired for Wi-Fi – One of the first in the country to get it. It was on 23rd and Park, I believe – I sat down, turned on my PC (Yes, I had an evil PC at the time) and of course, no networks came up. After about ten minutes, I bit the bullet and asked a barista (knowing full well they wouldn’t have a clue) if there was Wi-Fi there. His expected response: “No, we have Grande and Venti.”


Since then, the coffee shop has become the de-facto standard when talking about free Wi-Fi. From NYC to LA, from Sydney to Staten Island. You walk into virtually any food establishment, and you’ll see iPhoners scanning for an open signal. I heard a man complain once that Macy’s had no free Wi-Fi – “What am I supposed to do while I wait for her to shop?” he asked.

Lately though, the dark side of free Wi-Fi has reared it’s ugly head, unfortunately. People unable to get a seat in a local coffee shop – shops kicking people out because they’re spending eight hours in a store for a total of one cup of coffee – or my favorite, the store that painted a fake outlet on the wall to deter people from plugging in.

Perhaps it’s time to do away with the free Wi-Fi?

Until we become a society where everyone has access to free, safe, secure high-speed Internet, the concept of finding a Starbucks to get some work done seems rather foolish. Back in 2003, it made perfect sense – there was really no other way to do it – You were either at home, in the office, or in the coffee shop – Otherwise, you weren’t connected.

Now, though, (and I know I’m gonna get a ton of crap for this) it seems that the people who are doing “real” work, aren’t spending time in the coffee shop to begin with – They’ve ponied up for the price of a MiFi, or a Sprint EVO, or a similar card that jail-breaks them from the bonds of the coffee shop.

“Outside” has become the new coffee shop.

My assistant Meagan loves being able to sit in the park and work – She says she’s more productive. For her happiness, it’s worth me paying $59.99 a month.

Let’s face it: Connectivity is power. I want that power, so I pay $59.99 a month for a Sprint MiFi card. I don’t have to be in a coffee shop to connect. I can connect from the cab, or an airport, or the Drop Zone, or the beach. All I need is a mobile signal. To me, that’s power.

It’s also a hell of a lot safer. Ever wonder how secure those Wi-Fi networks are in the local coffee shop or airport lounge? Here’s a secret: “Not safe at all.” One sniffer, and a run of the mill password crack program, and someone can start grabbing every single packet you’re transmitting. And yes. People do. All the time.

Finally, on a recent visit to Starbucks, I walked around and looked at the screens of the six people there on laptops. Three of them: Facebook. One: Itunes store. One: Tweetdeck. One: A word document.

Starbucks was giving up six tables so four people could use social media, one person could download music or videos, and one person could work. Where’s the revenue enhancement for Starbucks from that? (The irony is that last month, Starbucks announced free Wi-Fi in all of their coffee houses, no time limit. I’m dying to know their reasoning behind it. I have a tweet into Starbucks Corporate, I’ll update here if they respond to me.)

So yes – I call for the death of free Wi-Fi. Internet on-the-go that important to you? Buy a monthly subscription with a MiFi card, and get online whenever you want – not just at the local coffee house. It was a good idea once. But technology (and the selfishness of the one-cup-of-coffee-a-day people) have brought an era to an end. Heck, you might even discover new places. There’s a rock in Central Park that’s become my new de-facto meeting point, and I’ve sent 200 emails I typed on the plane, all from the BART when I landed in SF.

Leave the coffee houses for the coffee.

What do you think? Love the free Wi-Fi? Hate it? Have your own device? Let me know below.

Update: Starbucks responded with this:

Starbucks turned on one click, free Wi-Fi at both U.S. and Canadian company-operated stores starting on July 1, 2010. Strengthening the connection we have with our customers and bringing relevant innovation are the fundamental to the transformation of Starbucks business. We are delivering both by elevating the digital experience our customers have in our stores. In fact, the availability of one click free Wi-Fi paves the way for the planned introduction of the Starbucks Digital Network in U.S. company-operated stores later this fall. This online experience, in partnership with Yahoo!, will be unique in its content offerings, allowing customers free unrestricted access to various paid sites and services such as, exclusive content and previews, free downloads, local community news and activities, on their laptops, tablets or smart phones. Starbucks has offered two consecutive hours of free Wi-Fi per day to customers with a registered Starbucks Card since 2008 (and unlimited complimentary Wi-Fi service to AT&T customers). With approximately 6,800 company operated stores in the U.S. we had to make sure the implementation of free Wi-Fi would be seamless, resulting in the best customer experience. Introducing free Wi-Fi was not a response to competitors, but more so at the demand of our customers. Starbucks offers an unparalleled environment in our stores – more than 65% of our customers say they prefer using Wi-Fi at Starbucks over other public Wi-Fi hotspots because they feel it’s a “safe and creative environment.

That change anything for you?

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