Walk into a Starbucks or just about any other coffee shop in this country, and you will see the same thing: dozens of people sipping coffee while hunched over laptops as they work or study. In the corners, you may spot a small clusters of friends chatting or business people having a casual meeting, but the laptops dominate.
The coffee shops are making a trade: they provides wifi, and people will come spend some money on some coffee or snacks while they work.
Coffee shops are clearly not universally enthused about this relationship. Many have argued that people are abusing the the wifi and costing them money. They come in, spend $2.50 on some coffee, and then monopolize a table for hours on end. Meanwhile, people come to the shop, see that there is no where to sit and walk back out the door.
I feel bad for them, but not too bad. I’ve watched many of them go through various policies trying to limit abuse, most notably charing for the wifi. However, almost every coffee shop I have seen try this eventually goes back to giving the wifi away for free. I’m guessing that despite their claims, the coffee shops were actually losing more customers than they could make up with the faster table turnover.
Some try to find a middle ground by shutting off the wifi at peak hours like lunchtime. But I suspect that most of them are actually doing something much different – they are making their wifi artificially slow.
Why do I think this? I’ve been testing coffee shops around the Cambridge/Boston area, and I have determined that it is always slower than the connection from my cell phone.
My new role at Cape Ann Enterprises involves a large amount of business development, so I have been doing a lot of networking and meeting a lot of people at coffee shops. Often, I find it most convenient to arrive 30-60 minutes before the meeting or stay after and get some work done on my laptop. And almost every time that I try to attach to the wifi in these coffee shops, I am struck by how slow it is. My email hangs and hangs trying to load messages. Web pages sit blankly for a while, then render text while taking another 15-30 seconds to show the images.
I run a quick test on Ookla’s internet speed tester (www.speedtest.net), and at almost every Starbucks or independent coffee shop, I find the speed clock in at a measly 1 megabit per second.
How bad is that? It’s about enough to load gmail, slowly. If you browser web sites, you will find yourself waiting around for images to load.
Lucky for me, I don’t need to use the coffee shop’s wifi. AT&T offered me unbelievably cheap pricing for a mobile share value plan, giving our family 10GB of data for the same price we used to pay for just 1GB. It’s more data than I will ever use, so whenever the internet goes slowly, I just tether my laptop to my phone. How fast is the the AT&T LTE internet?
10-20 mbps. Sometimes faster. It leaves the coffee shop wifi in the dust.
So, why are coffee shops so damned slow? Much of the time, the coffee shops are using AT&T as their provider. Are AT&T’s physically wired connections really 10x slower than their cell phone towers?
One argument might be congestion. I have the phone all to myself, but there are 10-20 people all sharing the internet. Or, it might be something related to the technology that selectively allows connections only after a user has agreed to the terms of service.
That could be true, but I don’t think so. One day, I went to the Cambridge Public Library and tried their wifi. Once again, I had to agree to the terms of service, and there were other people with laptops using the the internet. I measured the speed, and it clocked in at 30 mbps. Blazing fast. Clearly, it can be done.
Another argument is that this might be something about the networks in Boston. However, I went to a Barnes & Noble in Rochester, NY and tried their wifi. Once again, 1 mbps.
So, here is what I think: coffee shops make their wifi intentionally slow.
Not having wifi keeps customers away. Bad wifi gets people in the door but leads to faster turnover. If people aren’t being as productive as they hope, they are less likely to stay for hours on end. They will work for a little bit and then go home, back to their faster wifi where they can get more done.
For my personal needs, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t need their wifi. At this point, I don’t even bother to try connecting to the coffee shop’s wifi and just tether to my phone instead. Despite my most earnest attempts to use my 10GB of data, the most I have every managed to use is 3GB. And the way that AT&T has done their pricing, there are no cost incentives for me to drop down ($130 a month for two phones for 10GB, $120 a month for two phones for 4GB).
But, if you decide to take your laptop with you to do some work in a coffee shop, I recommend you either plan on tethering to your phone or pick something that does not require internet access.