Preventing Wi-Fi Free Riders

(Photo: Charleston's TheDigitel)

We have to have Wi-Fi available everywhere — I have withdrawal symptoms if I can’t do my email and check the web often. Recognizing this, many stores offer customers “free” Wi-Fi. I’m sure the cost of the Wi-Fi is passed onto the customers as higher product prices, in what are typically competitive retail industries. But how to avoid people spending hours in the shop surfing the web free of charge, and perhaps causing congestion for other users?

The Whole Foods store on Kensington High Street in London has solved this problem by allowing each computer or smart-phone a two-hour log on period, after which the device is booted off the Wi-Fi.  Two hours are enough to satisfy almost any customer, but short enough to prevent non-customers from making the store their Wi-Fi venue of choice. I expect this kind of limit will become more widespread shortly — it is much more effective than warning people not to stay logged on for very long.


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  1. Bradley says:

    There’s a restaurant I love in Houston, called “House of Pies.” They have a $5 an hour fee if you are not eating / sharing a meal, and if you stay more than an hour after you’ve finished eating. It only applies during the restaurant’s peak hours, though.

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  2. Alex says:

    Before the Caribou Coffee down the street from me closed, I used to spend 3-4 hours a day at a small table (2 people) during the bi-annual finals week. I never thought about it in the way the article and comments assert because so many others do it. It almost seems that the internet accessibility was what drove some of the business at Caribou. Totally different, more professional and grown-up atmosphere at Caribou as opposed to that *other* nationwide coffee shop chain. I’m still refusing to make the switch.

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  3. Mark says:

    You have Wi-Fi everywhere? (´_ `) In Japan, public Wi-Fi is just about impossible to find. The few places that have it (e.g. some Starbucks stores), you have to go up to the counter and get the logon information. A vending machine has it.
    Otherwise, Wi-Fi in retail hasn’t happened here.

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  4. Francis Flaherty says:

    This is not new or innovative? Some Peets & Starbucks have per purchase time limits.

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  5. James says:

    Hanging out in coffee shops to get free WiFi? I’d say some people need to get a life instead :-)

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  6. Ben says:

    McDonalds ex-USA lets you use it as much as you want, but you only get 50MB per session. You can login again, but it’s annoying enough that you wouldn’t really want to do that all day if you were free-riding. And downloading kills your allowance immediately.

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  7. Aidian Holder says:

    The Whole Foods store on Kensington High Street in London has solved this problem by allowing each computer or smart-phone a two-hour log on period, after which the device is booted off the Wi-Fi.

    This is the sort of thing I’d feel compelled to beat. Probably just by changing my MAC address — takes two seconds from the command line on linux, IIRC easy to do on Windows, too. The irony of course is that I’d never want to step foot in a Whole Foods, much less spend more than two hours there, except that I’d feel obligated to beat their wi-fi restrictions. Irrational to the point of pathos I know.

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  8. Matthew says:

    At KFC in Australia, the free wifi allows 15 minutes access. This is enough for most people visiting a QSR. They allow this time to be extended to 1 hour if you ‘sign in’ which requires you to enter some basic demographic information (age, postcode, gender) and your email address. There is also a checkbox to opt in for email newsletters.

    The sign in page also features promotional product ads.

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