Free Parking is like Free Wifi…
My experience is that when things are ‘free’ they don’t seem to work very well. This is particularly true for “free” wifi. When you try to log on at airports or in coffee shops, there are issues. The signal is weak, or the 4000 people trying to run on the system means the bandwidth shrinks and speeds slow to old ‘dial up’ modes.
When you pay for wifi, it seems to work better. Companies that are receiving the money want you to be happy so they build their networks to fit the needs of the community. As the traffic increases, the network grows to fill the requirements.
A writer in the Washington Post points out that many coffee shops are limiting or doing away with free wifi because people are moving in and taking space from paying customers. They are sitting on sofas or at tables, maybe ordering one coffee, and spending hours writing the great American novel or surfing for great deals on Groupon. Sound familiar?
He noted that this issue is similar to the one raised by ‘free’ parking in central cities:
In a way, free wi-fi is like free parking. Sometimes it makes sense for businesses , because it’s a means to get people in the door. Sometimes if you don’t have wi-fi (or parking), some customers will go elsewhere. But in a major city, seats in coffee shops (and free parking spaces) are in short supply and high demand. Having a few seats (or parking spaces) that a small number of people hog all day long simply doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t matter if free wi-fi (or parking) is what people are used to. This is just the new reality.
“Free” isn’t of course free. The cost of the wifi is charged to all customers in the cost of their grande latte whether they use it or not. Having ‘singles’ taking tables that could be used for couples makes the coffee bar less attractive as a meeting place. And as the author points out, in major cities real estate is expensive and the margins just aren’t there to cover the costs of allowing people to ‘hang out’ with their laptops taking space that could be used for more profitable activities.
The law of unintended consequences seems to be alive and well. Well meaning ‘free’ wifi also can mean abuse, and that can lead to problems.
I disagree with the last sentence above. This issue has always been the ‘reality.’ Its just that we are now becoming aware of the pitfalls that surround the word ‘free.’