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Coffee shops target WiFi hogs

Monday - 9/30/2013, 2:50pm  ET

saxbyswoman augenstein
Free WiFi is one reason customers frequent coffee houses, but some businesses are limiting WiFi usage. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

WASHINGTON - Would you like free WiFi with your coffee?

The question goes unspoken, but in local coffee houses the answer is clearly yes.

Most coffee shops in the Washington area offer free WiFi as a perk, in hopes of bringing in customers.

"Being able to get away from your office or home routine and find a place where you can concentrate without your coworkers or kids interrupting is priceless," says Elias Montilla, general manager of Tryst, in Adams Morgan.

"The majority of our customers do have a laptop or tablet or other device with them, whether they're using it to study, complete work or just personal enjoyment," says Jim Hilson, co-owner of Saxbys Coffee, a longtime favorite for Georgetown University students.

In a college environment, Hilson says WiFi use is part of his business model.

"It can even be a social experience. We'll often see a couple of students come in and sit down at the tables, take out their laptops and start doing their work together," says Hilson.

Not all coffee houses share Saxbys' WiFi welcome.

With smartphones and mobile devices facilitating mobile offices, some customers take root in coffee shops and gobble up bandwith, without buying drink or food.

Customers use the shop's free WiFi for large file downloads, while sipping free water.

Enough is enough

Some business owners are setting time limits, requiring an access code fo the WiFi network, or even covering electric outlets to discourage laptop use.

"As a business, especially in the food industry, you need turnovers," says Montilla, whose Tryst cafe became an early staple in a rejuvenated neighborhood filled with restaurants, and a thriving nightlife.

Montilla says Tryst had to set some rules, in hopes of encouraging in person instead of online interaction.

"We offer no WiFi on weekends," says Montilla.

"We believe that you have the right to let your hair down and relax, get to meet new people, and chat with your friends," says Montilla.

A popular San Francisco shop, Coffee Bar, set 30-minute time limits during peak times and established "laptop-free" seating, so customers would have a place to sit during lunch, according to Fox News.

A hipster hangout in Los Angeles, LAMILL Coffee Boutique has a two-hour time limit on its wireless access.

The former owner of Shoes Cup and Cork in Leesburg told Fox News "It's difficult to generate profit from coffee sales alone. You really need people coming in to eat."

And the WiFi squatters made matters worse.

"There were lots of people that would come in - if you were lucky they would maybe order a large coffee but sometimes they would just demand water - and sit there for hours," according to Jane Shihadeh, the former owner of Shoes.

At Saxbys Coffee, Jim Hilson acknowledges WiFi usage poses a challenge.

"It does create a demand on the tables, so we encourage people to share the space," says Hilson, taking a momentary break in the small, bustling cafe, with customers using at least one mobile device at almost every table.

"We have an open-ended policy, where we don't use a password for the WiFi, we don't set a specific time limit. We do appreciate people keeping in mind that this is a shared space," says Hilson.

"We do provide signs that people can place on their table to let other customers know they're welcome to sit down and share the space."

Hilson says common courtesy is generally enough to make sure customers can get a good Internet connection while he can turn a profit.

"Normally people do self-monitor and they're quite respectful of each other and the business," says Hilson.

"We have learned to balance the situation by offering free unlimited WiFi during the week and never cover the outlets," says Tryst's Montilla.

"We are more than happy to let you sit back, relax, get your work done and enjoy your time here as long as you need to, as opposed to rush you out," says Montilla.

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