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.
Starbucks NYC GV: ping 33 ,.59D, 1.43U. Ludicrous!! 9 AM Sunday.
If I ever go to Starbucks to quietly get some work done when my house is making me too restless, I make sure to buy a drink and a sandwich along with a nice tip. Even when I get refills to sit for an additional hour (which are free due to my membership; hey… Starbucks is offering), I leave another tip for that saved money to help out the ones that could really use it. However, the wifi at my local Starbucks is horrendous, and I’m not merely talking about “slow” speeds. I can’t get my Google Chrome browser to even open up Google when the service is supposed to be provided by Google. I look at my network status and it’s constantly looking for a network connection. When I do get any connectivity, the DL speed is approximately clocked at 0.1-0.3 mbps… that is.. when the Internet connection stays up long enough for the test to finish running its diagnostic. More often than not, the DL speed result I get is the oh-so-popular “This Webpage is Not Available” message. I pinged Google’s server to see how long it takes. Approximately 1,800ms after 3 initial packets being dropped. The router is replying at about 4-5ms, which is horrendous considering that the store router can’t be more than 7 yards from me unless they installed their router on a tree behind the store…. I think that there are cracks in this system like any other business where the people given the task of applying networks at the store level aren’t configuring them properly (while the routers also can’t handle the load for stores with high volume). I’ll bet that the routers’ address tables are set to reset at the default time of 24 hours causing a higher load on the routers. Their el cheapo routers can get more done if configured properly, but Starbucks went through the trouble & expense of pairing up with Google to advertise “high speed” Internet and it all went to waste due to bad configurations by several network technicians. ps. I doubt that they are throttling their network since that would just create a consistent connection, albeit relatively slow.
I am convinced that once AT&T lost the Starbucks contract to Google, AT&T has either decided to neglect or has outright sabotaged their remaining Starbucks sites. Almost without exception, the Google WiFi flies, and the AT&T WiFi is slow when it works at all. If Starbucks is still paying AT&T a cent for this “service” they should be screaming.
Well, I cannot speak for all Star bucks. Maybe there are some out there kicking ass at the supposed 9MB level. I can’t find one, yet. The Sonora, CA and Oakdale, CA stores are pegged at 1MB to 1.1MB and STAY at that level for hours. This cannot be coincidence. The speed must be artificially throttled back, somehow. So, one wonders why Starbucks is touting such fast speeds, then. It ain’t happening in my world.
This is true in Toronto, Canada as well. Starbucks hangs and the page sometimes doesn’t even load. I’ve stopped going to Starbucks because of this. Maybe that’s what they wanted – quick in, quick out customers.
Second Cup coffee houses are usually very good for internet speed. They’ve won my business with it.
Any business strategy that involves supplying a bad product has got to be a little suspect. In-and-out quick means that I will avoid going back.
San Diego, CA (Sorrento Valley, center of SD high-tech), two Starbucks with identical speed of 1.7 mbps download and 2 mb upload. At the same time, if you go to network properties, it shows the network speed of 300 mbps, but the actual speed that you get – sucks!
South Pasadena CA, 12:30 pm, store half empty.
Download – 0.72 mbps
Upload – 0.69 mbps
PING: 44 ms!
This is also true in the South Bary area of California. It’s a recent development, too. Before it wasn’t great, but mainly noticeable while downloading or gaming online. Today you can’t do those things at all, and you’re lucky if you’re email service can load even at the most basic settings. I tried to comment here days ago from my local Stabucks. It didn’t work. Half the time I get notices that privacy concerns prevent me from loading any Google page, and can’t search or load email until I clear my privacy info. So they’re doing something to actively interfere not just with the internet, but specifically with Google.
In addition, many Starbucks have been changing furniture arrangements to be less comfortable and have fewer electrical outlets.
Coffee Society, on the other hand, has great internet.
If you walk into a Starbucks at all, do us all a favor: Check the internet if you can. Load your email or something. If it’s too slow, don’t even give them your business. Go somewhere else for your business.
I think the problem is more abuse by customers than the stores throttling speeds. After all figure most of these stores are going to impliment some kind of business class internet. something like a 100 / 10 plan The problem is you get one or two customers who decide to sync their google drives, or something else that consumes all the upstream and it causes the performance to go to shit for everyone else in the store. Starbucks should ration out to the bandwidth per MAC address. All it takes is one person who has bittorrent running in the background to destroy the experience for everyone else. If the store is near apartments it can get even worse, as people use the free wifi using long range directional antennas rather than buying their own service.
Waterbury CT, Starbucks wasted so much of my time trying to work that I actually googled whether of not it was intentional and came across your page.
Very well-written article and research, Jeremy. This ongoing conspiracy by Starbucks isn’t exactly the biggest revelation to me. It’s actually a very clever strategy to dissuade many internet hoarders from even stepping foot into their shops. Rather than awkwardly/forcefully demand time-consuming customers to leave, why not just throttle internet speeds to get these individuals from staying past their due? The problem is it could hurt business and backfire on Starbucks. These customers who buy coffee strictly for Starbucks’ internet will avoid that shop like a plague. It’s a big reason why Starbucks got rid of all the internet restrictions they had back in 07-09, where you had to buy coffee and have an account to use what was their mediocre internet back then. Now, any hobo doesn’t even have to walk inside to access their high speed internet from within a 20-ft wifi perimeter. The REAL question is…will this strategy of throttling internet speeds alone control the amount of in-store customers? Many people come in to charge their devices, some to read books, while others to play games, watch movies or just strictly browse the internet. If a “high speed” internet isn’t important to them, then their in-store crowds won’t change much during peak hours. If this conspiracy exists, then I believe it will have a minimal effect. Shutting down internet completely would be far more effective. Or posting time limit signs during peak hours (which would terrible PR).
There really isn’t any easy solution to this problem. My real frustration is having witnessed very slow speeds when I’m the only customer in the store. When I asked the baristas, they seemed totally oblivious and clueless about the issue. They only referred to it being a management issue. Maybe, the management does throttle internet speeds on hot days during peak hours, to deter all thise customers who plan a long stay to beat the heat and get very fast internet as well. I’m certainly convinced this is no accident. I’ve witnessed this issue particularly at very busy Starbucks shops (all of which have very subpar Yelp ratings), and never at the less busy stores. I see my download speeds at 56 kbps (1990s quality) and also ran a speed test and I don’t even get 1 Mbps. I get about 0.2 Mbps. It’s astronomically slow and nobody seems to be concerned about it than myself. I mention it to other customers, and they’re like “well now that you mention it, you’re right. Internet does seem slow.” Most people don’t catch on to it, unless you spill it out very clearly. This is why Starbucks can continue doing this data control in attempt to sustain in store traffic. Of course, if many people complain and suggest to boycott Starbucks, then they’d fix the issue faster than the speed of light. The problem is throttling internet speeds sounds very innocuous and unimportant to most nontechnical people (which is the vast majority of customers). Jeremy, I do thank you for your analysis and capturing this story. It certainly helps explain things!
I’m currently on Starbucks WiFi and this blog took 2 minutes to load.
I’m currently on Starbucks Wi-Fo and this takes minutes. I am listetening to a music on my phone, it took literally a whole song to load this whole long page.