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Monday, February 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
E-conomy / Paul Andrews
"FREE WI-FI IS HERE," proclaims the banner atop the Rusty Pelican in Wallingford. Below, in tiny type, is the caveat, "While dining."
Setting aside the issue of pasta sauce's perils to your keyboard, the café's carefully qualified policy addresses an impending trend. Wireless Internet access also called Wi-Fi, or 802.11b is exploding across Seattle and major metropolitan areas everywhere, to the point where its popularity may create customer conflict.
As it turns out, the Pelican's policy is pretty liberal. Management does ask wireless users to buy something, but there's no minimum charge or maximum time allotment.
Wi-Fi habitués are asked to use their own judgment, a waiter told me. If people are waiting for a table, patrons should try to wrap up their surfing. Most of the time, though, there's plenty of room.
There isn't always plenty of room at Zoka, a popular wireless-equipped coffeehouse a few blocks from the Pelican. But management doesn't hurry people along. Customers are encouraged to inquire of computer users how long they'll be, I was told. The café plans to expand soon to accommodate overflow.
A similar laissez-faire attitude marks other wireless hot spots in Seattle. Local Color in the Pike Place Market, Ravenna Third Place Books and Herkimer Coffee on Phinney Ridge all said they've encountered no problems with wireless squatters. And if they do, they will be handled on an individual basis rather than by set policy, they said.
This is all well and good for now. Any place offering free wireless hardly wants to discourage customers by hurrying them out the door.
For many, wireless is a way to attract patrons during slow periods, particularly afternoon hours. I was told the Dilettante café on Broadway may consider free wireless for that very reason.
Wireless, in fact, is contributing to a coffeehouse revival, particularly spurring independent cafés.
But as the number of wireless Net users continues to grow, managers and patrons alike will need to smooth out potential conflicts.
Perhaps a foreshadowing of Seattle's challenges is taking place in the Bay Area, where I visited recently. At LuLu Carpenters, a packed Santa Cruz, Calif., café offering free wireless, I was merrily browsing along when the network went dead. I asked at the counter and was told they shut wireless down at 6 p.m. daily.
"We don't want to encourage 'studying' during peak hours," the counter clerk said.
At the Grove Café in San Francisco, small table signs asked wireless users to limit their time to an hour. I found similar policies at wireless coffeehouses in Palo Alto and Marin County.
Seattle's saving grace is its sheer volume of free wireless outlets. They're much easier to find here than in the Bay Area, where paid wireless dominates. As a result, free wireless seekers aren't crowded into one or two places per neighborhood or locale.
But we're still on the cusp of the Wi-Fi boom.
Wireless Internet will become de facto for cafés and other public places, and usage accordingly will grow beyond computers to handheld devices, phones and other gadgets.
The implications of all this for a new wireless coffeehouse culture are still germinating.
In my youth, espresso cafés were catalysts for alternative music and politics seeding beds for the revolution. Wireless Internet, combined with the burgeoning social-networking movement, invokes a host of possibilities for combining the virtual and actual "café societies."
Seattle can still afford a polite approach. Let's hope Northwest gentility works through potential conflicts while continuing to host fertile ground for innovation.
Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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