by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
July 17, 2008
RESTAURANTS OFFER WI-FI, BUT AT WHAT PRICE?
SARASOTA, Fla., June 18, 2008 -- I had a strong desire to write tonight, but by the time AT&T got through with me, I was exhausted, so I only wrote this.
Sure, WiFi - as familiar as it is to many - is still a work in progress. It is basically a broadcast of an Internet signal that is received over cable or a DSL line and then transmitted wirelessly via a fixed router, or hot spot, to anyone with a laptop that has either a built-in wireless card or a WiFi card slotted into its side.
Many of the people who install WiFi in their stores have a poor understanding of what customers use it for, and as a result many of them provide a service that is almost worthless to professionals. At the most basic level, few seem to understand they need to provide electrical outlets for users because most laptop batteries run down quickly.
Take IHOP, for example. They have a modestly fast service installed in some of their stores, but you can't upload a large file unless you're willing to wait a very, very long time to do it. At my local store, the one outlet is all the way in the back about eight feet off the floor - you have to climb up on a chair to plug a laptop in. The same is true at my closest Perkins, an East Coast restaurant chain that has put WiFi routers in some of its stores. They have a plug - just one - but at least it's near the floor. A local manager complained about the upload hassle to their corporate people several times at my behest, but nothing changed except the location of the router.
Dunkin Donuts, which also has WiFi in some locations, also has that upload problem, even with good speeds the other way. Borders, Barnes & Noble, McDonald's, Starbucks and Seattle's Best charge you to use their WiFi but allow business-sized uploads - usually for $3.99 per 2-hr. block. Whole Foods, whose Sarasota, Fla., location used to be WiFi friendly, now has restricted large uploads, too, ending them at 66% of the file.
The stars of the show, in addition to your local Mon 'n Pop coffee shop (Java Moon on 34th St W. at Cortez Rd. and B'town café on 10th St. in downtown Bradenton), are Panera Bread and the Atlanta Bread Co. These two substantial chains known for their baked goods, soups and pastries provide fast broadband in both directions for free.
This past Saturday I was at a Panera bread on Atlanta Highway in Athens, Ga., home of the University of Georgia. There must have been 20 or more students working together or alone at booths throughout the store. Each had all the bandwidth and outlets needed; in fact, I'd never seen a restaurant that was such a completely wired place. It must be making a tremendous difference at the bottom line to have all those extra people eating there during these hard times for restaurants.
Hard times? That brings me to AT&T. Tonight I tried to buy a $3.99, 2-hr. block of time at Barnes & Noble, but the problems never ceased. The Website features greyed-out 6pt type, which is smaller than anyone over 50 can read. (Why is the Web so full of greyed-out, tiny type, anyway?) In large type, however, it offers "Purchase Options."
One of those options is a $3.99 plan for short-term use. Unfortunately, there is no button that allows you to click on it and purchase the block, as there are under the more expensive blocks of time. And when you use the "Contact Us" button, no helpful phone number turns up. In fact, nothing at all turns up except an nearly empty grey page that offers three options. Click on "Contact Us" and the same thing happens again.
This where the 6-point type comes in. At the bottom of the list of purchase options in the tiny greyed-out type is another 2-hr.-block option like the first one. This one asks you to enter a credit card. No matter how good the cards are, and no matter how carefully I entered them, they were turned down. It was hard to understand why AT&T is in business!
The whole process ate up at least half of the two hours or so I had to devote to writing at Barnes & Noble before I had to pick up my wife. I was too exhausted by the process to write anything. But frankly, I can't tell you how many times I have strode into a restaurant full of purpose and dander ready to use the advertised high-speed WiFi, and stumbled out defeated, emptied and grayer than I entered.
There's nothing so frustrating as working for hours at place that lets you connect to the Internet with WiFi, finishing some time-consuming personal or professional task, only to find out that there is a "cap" on uploads. That means you can't upload your work unless you've got a long time to wait, because the Internet Service Provider, probably in league with the restaurant chain, has conspired to prevent you from doing any real work on their WiFi routers. My particular bear is a 17MB text file called The American Reporter, where I am the editor.
This state of affairs is due to the failure of Congress to mandate "net neutrality," which would have required the ISPs to provide as much bandwidth to uploaders as it does to downloaders, as they did during the early days of the Internet. As time went on and giant sites like AOL, MSN and Yahoo developed huge seas of content, they didn't want to compete with the ordinary Joe starting his own newspaper or blog who needed bandwidth to save time getting his work done.
During the '90s, in our editorials this newspaper fought AT&T and other ISPs who wanted the one-way traffic paradigm - them to us - but few were listening. Recently, Congress failed to help again. Now the price of losing is evident at our local restaurants, who lose business that goes to chains that understand the problem and pay the price for the extra bandwidth to fix it.
Naturally, the wireless professionals - everyone from salesmen on the road to IT consultants, network gurus and journalists that those places hope to attract - often don't come back, so they've defeated their entire purpose in providing WiFi. That could easily have been avoided by demanding the caps be removed.
I can only sing the praises of Panera Bread and Atlanta Bread, both of whom offer good environments to use your laptop and have a corporate sensitivity to your needs. No caps slow the progress of those little timing bars that measure out the minutes of our networked lives. No huge bundles of accomplished work fail to reach their server destinations on time. Unfortunately, I couldn't reach a live person at the Panera marketing department for comment; my guess is they're very happy with the boost that WiFi gives them.
Today, thinking that WiFi had been deployed to all its stores, I went with my hungry wife and daughter first to an IHOP, then to a Perkins, then to a Borders Books café and a next-door Seattle's Best (both not free), and finally to a Dunkin Donuts. The IHOP, Perkins and Dunkin Donuts had not installed WiFi in these Tampa shops along Dale Mabry Hwy., the busiest road in this fairly big city. But they do have WiFi installed in their businesses along 14th Street/US 41 in Bradenton, a small city of 50,000, where their stores are within a half mile of each other. Go figure. Eventually we had a nice lunch at Denny's, which isn't wired at all.
Later, 60 miles south and with my wife at a church group, I went to my old trusty Barnes & Noble in Sarasota, Fla., where the WiFi was always pay-for-play but always worked. No more: they have discovered AT&T. Their product must work properly some of the time in some places, but I was too tired to find out. I just wrote this and brought it home to load.
AR Editor-in-Chief Joe Shea saved the Internet from government censorship in Shea v. Reno, a case that went to the US Supreme Court in 1997. He lost his editorial battle against network inequality.