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Battle lines drawn in the WiFi wars – but is a truce possible? – WiFi war

Forget Brexit and Trump – last year’s real hostilities were between cafe owners and freeloaders hogging the wifi. We are brokering peace talks

It was the year in which the wifi war broke out: cafe owners finally called time on freeloading freelancers exploiting their internet connections while nursing a single coffee for hours on end. In the age of flexible and remote working, the sight of a lone worker at a laptop in a coffee shop has become a symbol of our times. Yet independent coffee houses say the work-focused energy freelancers bring – fluctuating between jargon-heavy Bluetooth conversations or stoic silence – can dampen the atmosphere for other customers and slow turnover. So is it time for peace talks? We asked independent coffee shops and freelancers their views.

‘Customers use us as a pop-up office space’

For us, offering customers free wifi seemed like the obvious thing to do. It does, of course, mean that we have customers come in and use us as a pop-up office space, but it has never been an issue. They have coffees (and a cake when they work hard) and are normally just quiet and keep to themselves. And there are of course times when they aren’t working, and we often see these same customers come in for a quick takeaway coffee. Sophie Godding, Coffee in the Wood, south-west London.

‘At lunchtime it can be a pain’

They add vibrancy in the “off peak” shoulder periods of our trading day as a quick service restaurant, but when it comes to lunchtime then it can be a pain … taking up tables and making that coffee last a little too long is fine, but not when 12pm hits and its game time when we need every bit of space for all of our paying customers.” Ed Brown, co-founder Friska Foods, Bristol and Birmingham.

‘I’d be prepared to pay a “freelancer tax”’

The major problem with coffee shop freelancing is security – both physical and information. If you need the loo, you’re pretty much hoping everyone else is keeping an eye on your stuff. There’s also the issue of finding a space somewhere. I’d be prepared to pay a “freelancer tax” in these places. For example, if I was staying for more than four hours, I’d pay a couple of quid to cover the cost of my presence in addition to whatever I’d bought. If it meant I didn’t need to make guilt purchases, I’d probably save money. Sean O’Meara, Manchester.

‘As soon as I finish my coffee I order something else’

They will have wifi anyway for their own business needs: making it available to their customers simply invites more people in or encourages them to stay longer and spend. There are many coffee shops I wouldn’t dream of going to for a relaxing or social coffee, I go there simply because I can do some work in a different environment. I also wouldn’t dream of working there without having a drink in front of me. As soon as my coffee runs dry, I order something else. On the flipside, I went for dinner with friends last night and the conversation was so good we stayed at our table for about 40 minutes after we had finished our food and drinks – and no one batted an eyelid. Jai Breitnauer, Essex.

‘Our customers pay per minute’

Our pay-per-minute sitting room model was born out of people using city centre spaces for reasons that aren’t fit for purpose. A cafe’s business model isn’t designed to have someone sit there all day and buy one cup of coffee. Likewise, if you are looking for a place to work, weak wifi is a pain and the bustle of a cafe can be distracting. We have a mixture of both soft and hard space which serve both social and work purposes. We take large open units so people feel included in the atmosphere but don’t disrupt each other. We find operating a self-service model also gives people the ability to move around the space freely as if it was their own home or office. In our experience, mobile working is becoming more and more common, so I can see this issue escalating. For many people, it’s quite clear that the use of a seat, plugs and wifi is a priority over the typical coffee shop routine. Ben Davies, Ziferblat, Manchester.

‘Freelancers are an asset to our cafe’

There’s a funny scene in the comedy Fleabag that sums this scenario up nicely: a guy painstakingly sets up his complicated work gear and doesn’t order anything. Of course, [freelancers] bring a lot of regular business into the cafe too. I think they are more of an asset to our cafe as we rarely have to turn people away due to full tables. Simon Fox, Cooper and Wolf, east London.

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