Free wi-fi & paying the rent

One busy weekday I sat at Costello’s sipping an Americano, when a thirty-something woman at the next table engaged me in conversation. She said she was on vacation, and couldn’t figure out “what all these people do for work,” that they could just sit around at a cafe “playing with their computers.” I pointed out that some of them were on vacation, like her, some were students, others were unemployed or worked night shift or weekends. Then I explained that some of us were actually here working. In fact, all of these categories together probably make up over 50% of the city’s population.

At this point, the cafe was getting pretty busy, and an employee approached the woman and politely asked her to leave, saying that they needed to seat lunch customers. Now, let me point out that the woman, like me, had been there most of the morning, surfing the internet, drinking the same cup of cold coffee she had purchased two hours earlier.

The woman was obviously indignant, and when the employee left, she huffed, “why didn’t they ask you to leave?”

“Because, I pay the rent,” I said.

I work full-time as a writer, publisher and I.T. guy. I work out of my home, except when I am on assignment – usually I’m doing I.T. work, which I admit is my least proficient skill. Spending all day alone in a home office, for me, is an onerous task. So, I have a second office. Several second offices, in fact. This, despite the fact that I have very little disposable income (I am a writer, for christsake).

When things start to get lonely, I go to a local coffeehouse offering free wireless internet connections (wi-fi). In fact, I am writing this essay at Costello’s Travel Cafe in Portland, Oregon, my home town. Costello’s and The Gold Rush, another nearby wi-fi establishment, have provided me with my lifeline to sanity for a reasonably small cost.

We are very fortunate, here in Portland to have an abundance of free wi-fi locations, thanks to a non-profit organization called PersonalTelco, and the general D.I.Y./open source/do-it-for-love culture that pervades this city. This approach has fierce critics in our capitalist, bottom-line society. And, they make a good point we would be well to heed: free wi-fi isn’t free.

Many of the businesses which provide free services, including local collectives and cooperatives, operate on very marginal returns. When we buy a cup of coffee and take up a table during their busiest hours, we are making it difficult for them to thrive. The owners of many businesses give us these services for a variety of ideological and non-ideological reasons, including free publicity for their company to attract new customers.

Because of customers like the woman previously described, who take advantage without giving in turn, some of these businesses are cutting back on wi-fi services, making it unavailable on weekends, or eliminating it entirely. Who can blame them? They have to pay their rent.

When you take advantage of a free service, remember that it really isn’t free. Ever. Really. It doesn’t matter if it’s free wi-fi, or a free tool exchange, or free poetry reading, or a free website, like this one. Someone is busting their ass to make it happen.

Here are some tips. If you need to be there during a busy lunch hour, buy lunch. If not, go do your web-surfing during off hours. Buy coffee, and give a little something to the barista. If you go over an hour, buy a refill, if you can.

We all have to do our part or lose it! And risk losing the “free” culture, as well, that makes places like Portland so great.