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Pittsburgh coffee shops welcome those seeking Wi-Fi access

| Friday, March 23, 2012

If Travis Jacobson lived in Manhattan, he might be public enemy No. 1 in a lot of coffeehouses.

He's been looking for work since July and routinely scans online job sites. Local coffee shops often double as makeshift unemployment offices as he searches for his next steady paycheck.

Looking can go on for hours some days.

"I can't afford cable Internet, so this is it for me," the 26-year-old college graduate from the North Side says, while surfing job sites at a coffee shop in Lawrenceville. "In the end, it's cheaper for me to (pay for) a latte or two a few days a week than $100 or so each month (for cable)."

In Manhattan, where meeting space and Internet access both are at a premium, there's a crackdown on so-called "Wi-Fi sitters" -- customers who camp out at coffee shops for hours on end to take advantage of the free Internet access.

Signs have been popping up cautioning customers not to camp out for too long at tables and at wall plugs.

That's not the case in Pittsburgh. Java jockeys here are bucking that trend -- for now, at least.

"Whether they stay for 10 minutes or five hours ... we think it builds loyalty," Ken Zeff, owner of the Cultural District-based Crazy Mocha Coffee Co. chain, says of allowing unlimited Wi-Fi access. "As long as they buy something, we don't put a time limit on them."

Zeff says stores that don't want people to linger, can make it more uninviting by cutting certain amenities such as free water refills or free access to electricity.

A spokesman for Starbucks, the nation's largest coffee retailer, says a few stores in Manhattan recently restricted access to electric outlets. Some customers were taking up tables near the outlets for long periods, preventing cash-paying coffee drinkers from sitting down. None of Starbucks' 21 Pittsburgh stores are cracking down on outlets, the company says.

Computer glows reflect off the faces of afternoon customers at Coffee Tree Roasters coffee house in Shadyside, whose seating area is a sea of laptop monitors most Sundays. Scores of customers can be seen sipping from insulated coffee cups as they check emails, surf the Web or finish a chapter in what could be the next great American screenplay.

Here, the first two hours of Wi-Fi use are free. The next two hours• They're also free, but customers have to log in to re-gain their Web access.

Most of Panera Bread's 28 stores in Western Pennsylvania offer free unlimited Wi-Fi to customers, but "a few" of its high-traffic stores limit access to 30 minutes during lunch rushes.

In those stores, you get kicked off line if you try to stay on longer than a half hour between 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. After 1:30 p.m., customers have unlimited Wi-Fi access.

"Obviously during a busy lunch hour, our number one priority is serving our guests who are coming in to eat or grab something to take with them," says Bernadette Santucci, a regional marketing director for the company.

Bill Swoope Jr. started the started the business in 1993 with his father, and embraces the Wi-Fi crowd, even if some customers are slow to buy. Coffee Tree recently expanded its bandwidth technology to prevent Wi-Fi from slowing down.

"We have it as a convenience for customers, and don't feel like there's any abuse on it," Swoope says.

Allowing free Internet access has helped create a burgeoning market of regulars for My Coffee Shop, which opened in Monongahela in October 2010.

High-speed Internet is still a hard sell -- even for free -- in a rural neighborhood where owner Joanna Provan says many think a coffee shop is more of a clearing house for cigarettes, doughnuts and lottery tickets.

"They continue to buy things and support us, so we are lenient with them," Provan says. "I'm happy anyone comes in to use our coffeehouse as a sanctuary or workplace, even if they only buy one drink and stay for four hours.

"I'm sure in New York everyone is more high-strung, busy and preoccupied, compared to in our more-rural area where people don't think like that as much."

Other access areas

Coffee shops aren't the only places Internet bargain hunters are running to save a buck. Public libraries also are becoming hot spots.

All 19 branches of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh feature free Wi-Fi.

Customers used 142,507 hours of library Wi-Fi time in 2011, compared with 89,418 hours the year before, spokeswoman Suzanne Thinnes says. The spike represents a 62 percent annual increase.

Library patrons signed up for 16,000 hours of Wi-Fi use in 2007, the first year the library system began using Wi-Fi.

The library system believes more people simply have devices that use Wi-Fi technology, drastically increasing the system's volume. The library system plans to ask the public for advice on how to improve its Wi-Fi technology as it tries to map out its five-year strategic plan.

"I'm sure we'll have to tackle the public's technology needs in some capacity as part of that planning," Thinnes says.

Library customers need a valid library card to use the system, and are able to log on to Wi-Fi during business hours.

If you are Downtown, you can get two free hours a day of Wi-Fi access. WiFi Downtown Pittsburgh can be accessed anytime outdoors throughout Downtown, Point State Park, the North Shore and the Lower Hill District.

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