Where Did the Wonderful World of Wi-Fi Go?

In the past few months, I’ve consumed a lot of Starbucks coffee and, occasionally, those snacks that quietly call out your name from behind the display booth.

Part of my Starbucks patronage has to do with business meetings, and part of it has to do with finding a free Wi-Fi spot when there’s time to kill downtown. With two hours of free Wi-Fi a day, Starbucks is convenient and ubiquitous. To me, offering free Wi-Fi is a stroke of brilliance, especially for social media aficionados who need to connect to update something or the other.

The problem, however, is that when it comes to free Wi-Fi, Starbucks is like an oasis within a vast desert. While Wi-Fi is everywhere, 99% of the connections are locked down – a far cry from a few years ago when there was an abundance of free Wi-Fi to quickly access.

The lockdown has a lot to do with how easy it has become to lock down a wireless router (Thanks, Linksys, Belkin, D-Link, etc.!). Some of it has to do with the paranoia someone could jump onto your Wi-Fi and start downloading terabytes of porn or the entire Led Zeppelin collection. And some people worried about the bandwidth caps imposed by ISPs.

That said, the disappearance of free Wi-Fi has caused Wi-Fi to lose its mojo. Wi-Fi used to be fun, and it made getting online a breeze. Free Wi-Fi felt like being part of cooperative in which we agreed to share for the greater good – you gave a little, and you took a little, and everyone was happy.

Then, Wi-Fi got all serious on us. Municipalities rolled out Wi-Fi networks – many of them failures – by deciding they were in the Internet access business, and charging a daily/monthly fee. Toronto Hydro, for example, had grandiose plans to cover Toronto with Wi-Fi but discovered few people wanted to pay for something that offered, at best, average service. One of the few cities to really get Wi-Fi is Frederiction, which offers it at no cost.

At a time when being connected is more important and people are struggling with the economy, it’s time to bring back free Wi-Fi. If cafes, restaurants and bars are looking for a way to attract customers, free Wi-Fi could be just the ticket.

There’s nothing like giving away something for free to generate goodwill and, in the process, some business. The reality is that even though Starbucks is giving away free Wi-Fi, I usually buy something when I’m there – business Starbucks would never get without free Wi-Fi.

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  • mburpee

    Sounds like you need to get in touch with our friends Wireless Toronto. They are a not-for-profit community group dedicated to bringing no-fee wireless Internet access to Toronto.

    How to offer free Wi-Fi and get help doing so:

    Wireless Toronto Hotspot Map:

    • markevans

      Thanks, I'll check it out.

  • Steve

    Hi Mark. Out here in SK, our provincial government launched a project a few years ago now that provides free wi-fi access in the downtown and other select business districts and post-secondary institutions for four of our "major" cities. Service isn't always reliable – but it sure is nice to sit in the park with a laptop and be connected. Life really is better out west!

  • Craig

    Hi Mark – I'd also point out that many public libraries offer free wireless service to those with a library card which, in most cities in Canada, are available at no cost.

  • Mark 'Rizzn' Hopkins

    As a stay at home dad who works, about once or twice a week, I head over to McDonalds with my son to get some writing done in a different environment while Jacob plays on the playground (he's two).

    • markevans

      Sounds like a win-win proposition. :)

  • laurie

    It would be very cool to find free wi-fi and decent outlet coverage. As you know – not all starbucks are the same. For the most part, outlets are accessible but some are terrible.

    Dark Horse at Queen & Broadview offers free wi-fi but no outlets.

    Red Rocket – at Queen, west of Coxwell is fantastic for both wi-fi (free) and outlets. I go all over the city looking for wi-fi spots.
    Starbucks at King & Shaw area is great in the east end- as is one at Wellesley and Jarvis but Yonge & Wellsley is too busy.
    Le Gourmand at Richmond & Spadina is great – only one outlet (have to plug in behind juicer) but you can sneak onto Starbucks bell hotspot since its only two stores down.
    Balzacs in Liberty village has no wi-fi
    and so on..

  • JimCourtney

    What you did not mention, Mark, is that even Starbucks free WiFi requires that you have a Starbucks card. No, you don't have to buy anything but I think the drink and food is usually the primary attraction.

    Toronto Telecom has been acquired by Cogeco Data. I could never even get a basic login or Google page when trying to use it. The primary requisite before making any payment is that you can at least get to a login page and I could never achieve that. Cogeco Data tells me there is supposed to be an upgraded service launched this spring.

    I learned a couple of weeks ago that there is a free WiFi service in downtown Hamilton but given both my Toronto and Mountain View Google WiFi experience, I would have to actually try it to see if it's worth it.

    On a recent trip by car to South Carolina I found lots of restaurants offering free WiFi along the Interstates.

    Let's just say there is a metamorphosis going on with "Free" WiFi but it's not going away.

    BTW, Boingo recently reduced their monthly North America fee from $21.95 to $9.95 and that covers a lot of hotels, airports and Starbucks (in Canada at least). Lower costs are also a signal.