I’m sure that company wide corporate branding and signage are largely responsible, but the notice at the Starbucks in Cherry Creek North trumpeting how wireless Internet access inside of Starbucks was now accessible for free to everyone is particularly laughable. The Cherry Creek North Business Improvement District, or BID as it is sometimes known, has provided free WiFi Internet access to the entire Cherry Creek North shopping area for several years now. Only the truly naive, or those with an unlimited pre-paid access plan even bothered to connect to the Starbucks WiFi network. However, free Internet access at Starbucks is good news for freelance writers everywhere.
In a way, it seems that Starbucks is finally catching up with the times. After all, other establishments have been offering free, no strings attached, wireless Internet access in their businesses for quite a while now. Local coffee shops, sandwich shops, bookstores, and various other Mom and Pop businesses offer free Internet access for their customers at locations all over town. These day, its actually more uncommon for that type of establishment to NOT offer free wireless. Even places that you wouldn’t expect are getting in on the game. For example, here in Denver, Old Chicago’s restaurants have free Internet so that you can surf the web while drinking your Happy Hour beers and having the best Chicago pizza outside of Illinois.
In reality, however, Starbucks is the reason that we have free Internet WiFi hotspots wherever we go. When Starbucks first debuted nationwide wireless Internet access for its customers, they were the first brand-name nationwide company to do so. In fact, the idea of someone other than a hotel giving people Internet access at all was a bit of a stretch. Internet cafes were just starting to try and make a go here in the United States. Libraries were about the only other places that had public Internet access, free or otherwise. Even then, most access required plugging a CAT5 cable into your network card and an Internet port on the wall. Cellular modems with data access were largely a joke, offering less coverage than Starbucks at pathetic data transfer rate speeds.
If memory serves, when Starbucks first came out with public WiFI Internet, it was offered through T-Mobile. The service was grossly overpriced, costing up to almost $10 per day. Yet, it was available to the public across the country in virtually any town or city with anything resembling a bit of population. In other words, it was the most reliable nationwide Internet access around.
No doubt rolling out such a wireless effort was neither cheap nor easy. Although I never read any particulars, one can assume that there was some sort of joint expenditure or at least hefty discount provided by T-Mobile as the telecom vendor Starbucks used. For all I know, T-Mobile put the Internet into Starbucks for free. Either way, there was almost certainly some sort of exclusive contract between the two companies that gave T-Mobile the right to charge (overcharge) for WIFI in Starbucks long after WiFI hotspots had become cheap and commonplace around the country.
One wonders how long such commoditized versions of wireless Internet public hotspots would have taken to proliferate if not for the trail blazed by the corporate giant. No doubt the hardware installed at Starbucks had to blaze a trail for easy of setup and configurability if anyone with a laptop was going to access it. Indeed, security was sacrificed for this very reason. Not only that, but while one can expect a highly skilled barista to conjure up a perfect triple-shot latte with low foam, it is less reasonable to expect them to troubleshoot and manage a wireless router.
While it may have came anyway, Starbucks and their easily deployable hardware set a public expectation for easy to access public Internet, and in the process made it both acceptable and practical to set up shop with a laptop and a notepad on a coffee shop table for the morning or afternoon. Soon, every no one thought twice about a guy in the corner clicking the keys of his laptop in his portable workspace.
So, here is to you Starbucks. Thank you for your vision and efforts. I have no doubt that my many purchases in your humble shrines to the joy of caffeine have re-paid you for your efforts. Perhaps, my dollars alone have covered the initial rollout. Whatever the case, rest assured, that I will spend the remainder of my freelancing days (and there should be a lot of them) ensuring that you more than recoup your investment.
Otherwise, I’d still be limited to choosing between my home office, the library, or some rent an office company like Bridge. The very thought makes me shutter. I’ll take the wide open window, the friendly bustle, and the people hustling by any day.