News & Views
Is the game finally up for coffee shop Wi-Fi freeloaders?

Cafe proprietors say those making use of free internet access have plunged once-lively establishments into office-like silence – and now they’re fighting back

Fleabag – the BBC 3 sneak-attack that became the summer’s most banged-on-about comedy sensation – drew praise for its thrillingly dark humour, unapologetic filthiness and deft exploration of grief. But one of the show’s most devastatingly acute observations didn’t have anything to do with sex or death. In the first episode, creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s unnamed anti-heroine looks on as the sole customer in her ailing cafe declines to purchase any food or drink, before plugging in his laptop, phone and Kindle. It’s funny because cafe-squatters (and I count myself among their entitled number) are truly this brazen.

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Laptopping it up … customers at a cafe in Bloomsbury, London. Photograph: Simon Buxton

And now, this recognisable vignette of the reality in countless coffee shops, is giving rise to a fascinating new battle: cafe owners are hiding plug sockets, disconnecting their routers or ditching desk-style seating to stop their businesses being overrun by the familiar army of MacBook-clutching freelancers, scanning the floor for somewhere to plug in. Pour one out for smug workdays fuelled by free internet, siphoned electricity and complimentary cucumber water – the jig may be up for the nation’s Wi-Fi rustlers.

“Ultimately, coffee shops are social environments,” explains Jack Hesketh, owner of Store Street Espresso, which limits Wi-Fi in its two London outlets and has blocked the sockets in its Bloomsbury branch. “We were finding that you’d go into the cafe and it would be 15 people sat at 15 different tables and you could hear a pin drop.” Fighting this mausoleum vibe – as much as the chancers who make a mint tea last all afternoon – seems to be the prime motivation of a lot of the proprietors making a stand.

And sometimes the laptop brigade kill the mood in other ways. “The thing I hate the most is the people who come in and unplug lamps to charge up their laptops,” says Liam Casey, owner of the Pacific Social Club in east London, where laptop and tablet users are exiled to a back room. It’s not just the lone nomads either. “People use cafes for business meetings, which is fine,” says Casey. “But if I’m hungover and just want a breakfast, I don’t really want to get drawn into somebody’s professional networking.”

London, with its high density of students and transient workers, is a key battleground in this conflict. But establishments in places including Vermont, Copenhagen and even tech capital San Francisco have imposed similar bans, hoping to make a clear distinction between themselves and the startup-friendly “creative hubs” that loudly tout the speediness of their broadband.

So, do customers get indignant or angry when they’re told the unthinkable? “We’ve had a few people storming out and some negative things posted online,” says Casey. “But it’s generally positive.” Hesketh agrees that people are “super understanding” about their digital blackout. Perhaps this is a new age. Perhaps people truly have had enough of work encroaching on notionally social spaces. Either that or they have found that spot by the window where you can serviceably nick Wi-Fi from the train station.

First appeared on The Guardian.



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