Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Free Internet access

About a week ago (I’m behind, but I’m catching up) Xeni, at BoingBoing, reported on a Starbucks announcement that they’ll be giving free WiFi in the U.S. starting in July:

We’re very excited to announce that coming July 1st: Free. 1 click. No registration WIFI at all US locations!

The BoingBoing post has a comment thread filled with Starbucks sucks stuff[1], so check that out if you’re so inclined; I recommend avoiding the noise. Other comments note that WiFi is often free in libraries, so one doesn’t need Starbucks for it. More on that later.

Anyway, Starbucks has supposedly been offering free WiFi for some time now, to people who get a Starbucks card and use it to pay for their coffee. That deal has some disadvantages, though, including that you have to click through their setup/login system, and that having a Starbucks card basically means you’re buying your coffee in advance, so you’re paying for your WiFi by giving them your coffee money ahead of time. The New York Times article about the change also says that the free access was limited to two hours, which I hadn’t known.

But the bottom line is that Starbucks is behind the curve, at least in my area. On the point about libraries, Starbucks is not competing with libraries. There’re certainly people who just need a WiFi connection and will go where they have to in order to get it. For them, a library might be fine. But in most cases, libraries aren’t what one is looking for, and they aren’t are as readily available as cafes.

What seems to have broken things open where I live is the Panera chain, which is competition for Starbucks. Panera expanded into these parts within the last year or two, and immediately came with free WiFi in a market that was used to having to pay for it. Very quickly, the places that had been charging, such as Barnes and Noble, switched to free WiFi also, in apparent response to the competition. Atlanta Bread Company went one better and provided WiFi that’s not only free, but that just works — no click-through, no registration or login.

So I can already go to a number of comfortable places to get on the Internet. Starbucks? OK, well, it’ll be nice to have one more choice. But as I said, they’re behind. More so than I.

[1] Those folks need to get with the program and remember that it’s K-Mart that sucks.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Panera and Starbucks as competitors? Wow. I don't think of them that way, but then I don't go someplace to have a cup of coffee on the premises, so I'm not the target audience. But for me, Starbucks is where I go to get coffee when I'm travelling, and Panera is where I go for a very delicious soup-and-sandwich meal (lunch or supper!)... I have noticed people in Panera with their laptops in both places, but it's not something I do so I wasn't aware of the policies.

But, if you're going to buy the coffee anyway, is having the card really paying for it? I mean, I have the card - am I paying for access I'm not using? Again, I don't look at it that way.

I do have several friends who use the library to get on the Internet as a regular thing. I would think a commercial establishment wouldn't want to encourage all day browsing; I'd get ticked off it I went to Panera to eat and couldn't find a table because people were using them all to be on the Internet.

Still, Helen of the Internet captured it for me:

Barry Leiba said...

They're not the first line of competition, the way, say, Peet's is for Starbucks — as you say, Panera emphasizes the sandwiches, soups, and salads, while 'bucks emphasizes the coffee. Panera and Atlanta Bread Company are also tighter competition.

But they're still both, Panera and Starbucks, trying to get you to come in and have a cup, and then they hope you'll (1) come in more often and (2) buy more each time you're there, once they can draw you in.

The Starbucks card isn't "paying" in the sense that it's costing you more, but the exchange is that you were giving them money in advance for the privilege of using the Internet without charge for two hours. Suppose you go there every Monday and spend $3. The model is that you spend $30 over the course of ten weeks, $3 a week... or you pay $30 all at once, at the beginning of the ten-week period. It's sort of like paying $25 of toll money in advance in exchange for the privilege of going through the EZ-pass lanes at the toll plazas (and that's absolutely worth it to me... but it's still a cost of sorts).

Panera does have signs up asking that people limit their use during busy times. I don't know whether they have someone policing it, because I've never lingered then. But I have spent a couple of hours there from, say, 2 to 4 in the afternoon, and it's a pleasant place to sit and work, as is ABC. I frankly like them better than the library, for a number of reasons.

Your "Helen of the Internet" reference is missing; will you re-post?