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Coffee Shops Limit Wi-Fi To Discourage ‘Laptop Hobos’

By Paula Ebben, WBZ-TV
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Laptop users in a Boston coffee shop. (WBZ-TV photo)

Laptop users in a Boston coffee shop. (WBZ-TV photo)

WBZ-TV's Paula Ebben Paula Ebben
Award-winning journalist Paula Ebben co-anchors WBZ-TV News at 5PM...
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BOSTON (CBS) – It is a common sight in coffee shops all over the area: a person with a cup of coffee, an opened laptop, and no intention of going anywhere. These patrons have even earned themselves a nickname: “Laptop Hobos”

Some shops, overwhelmed by people surfing the web and holding business meetings, are developing more restrictive policies with their Wi-Fi. Disputes over outlets and cords dragged across busy lobbies are also common problems.

Ken Kavanaugh, a regular patron at Fuel America in Brighton, knows he can fit this bill. “I am probably a laptop hobo. I’ve been a free bird since last July and I spend most of my time at coffee houses. That is where I have my meetings.”

Like most cafes, Fuel America offers free unlimited Wi-Fi. Jeff Bonasia, managing director, said, “It really has become a cost of entry into the coffee house-cafe market. It is what people expect.”

Bonasia said he doesn’t require any purchases to tap the Wi-Fi, and he publicly posts the access code. He thinks these long term patrons create a lively atmosphere and he has never asked anyone to leave. Sometimes the requests can be pretty bold at Fuel America, however.

“They actually said it would be great if you had printers in the back so we could print stuff,” said Bonasia with a smile.

Not all coffee shops or restaurants are so generous with the free Wi-Fi. Some are beginning to set limits, or eliminate it altogether. Michael Oshins, a professor of hospitality at Boston University, said it is a predicament for these outlets.

“All of a sudden it kind of snowballs into, I can stay here for, this can actually become my office, I don’t have to pay rent any more, this can become my free space.”

That is why Panera is cutting computer users off after a half hour during their busiest hours.

Fuel America patron Suzanne Mello says policies like that are too severe. “I would probably just go to another store if that is the case. Where ever I can get free Wi-Fi and AC and they let me stay is good.”

Oshins believes these shops have a tough balance to achieve. They obviously need paying customers, but there is also value in looking busy. “It’s like, this place is happening. I want to go there. So all of a sudden it creates that customers become part of the environment or the ambiance, if you will, and all of a sudden it is more welcoming,” said Oshins.

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