A few thoughts on wireless internet

I’m a big fan of wireless internet–in fact, it’s what I use at home for all my internet connectivity needs. I also think it’s a great way to get high speed access into places without extensive existing infrastructure, and I was intrigued by the recent proposal in San Francisco to try and create city-wide wireless internet, for free. Yet wireless, like most new technologies, comes with its own share of problems and ethical dilemmas.

An experience I had this morning was typical–I got up, made my morning tea, and booted up so that I could see what was going on in the world outside. My computer found the wireless network, connected, and off we went. About an hour later, I realized that the network I was connected to belongs to the Headlands Coffeehouse, and was not in fact the network which I pay for. This happens sometimes, because I am close enough to Headlands to pick up their signal and their network is unsecured, but I still feel mildly guilty whenever it happens.

You see, Headlands pays for their network. They pay for monthly access, they bought the router and assorted hardware needed, and they maintain the network. When I’m at Headlands, buying coffee, I don’t feel qualms about using their internet. The network is for customers, and I am a customer, contributing to the (surely overflowing, hah) coffers of Headlands, and therefore as a perk I get internet use. But when I’m sitting at home in my pajamas drinking my own tea and reading fark.com , I’m not really contributing to the coffeehouse’s well being. And that doesn’t feel quite right to me, so I switch over to the “home” network. (This is somewhat of a misnomer only because the “home” network belongs to a neighbor and we split the costs–the router is actually in his house, not mine.) Now one might argue that I am in Headlands a lot, and often without my computer, so maybe my use of their network would balance out with my custom, but it doesn’t feel…right…to me, and therefore I try to avoid using their network unless I am inside as a paying customer. Which I suppose is a silly moral thing, because I know lots of people who use their network without paying for the privilege–I suppose Headlands could create a network key which would be distributed to customers with purchase, but that would mean additional work for them. And I like that you can come in, buy a burrito, and eat it while doing your internet stuff, and that it’s a pain free and easy process. I do.

I also know that Headlands debated whether or not they should install wireless. It’s something that’s becoming more and more common in coffee shops all over the nation these days, and it’s getting a mixed reception. While I love the idea of internet wherever I go, and take rampant advantage of it when I travel, I can certainly understand the objections to wireless internet, especially in social coffeehouses like the Headlands. You see, Headlands is a community gathering place. There’s live music every night after seven, which is awesome. They open early in the morning, and they serve all sorts of people, and they stay open late (comparatively to businesses around here). If you come in at noon on a Saturday, you might find a table of obnoxious tourists, some marine biology students studying for an exam together, two old men arguing in French, a single mother with her determined baby, music nerds ferociously debating something utterly unfathomable to the rest of us…and so on. “Meet me at Headlands” is probably one of the most often spoken phrases in town. People…organize…at Headlands. They listen to music. They study. They talk with old friends. They have language club meetings. It’s a social hub, and I love that.

The intrusion of wireless has changed the face of Headlands a great deal. Some evenings, I come in to total silence except for the strains of jazz, and six people intently bent over laptop screens, ignoring the outside world, and this makes me sort of sad. It must be unnerving for the musicians as well–particularly in the case of those customers who choose to wear headphones while live music is playing. Several weeks ago, I was sitting at a large table with friends back from college and a businessman type was sitting next to us. As we talked about this and that, reconnected across the gulf of lost time, he started to glare at us. And sigh. And shuffle his feet. And finally, he said “excuse me, I’m trying to work here.” We were all rather nonplussed. To my knowledge, Headlands is not a satellite office for any business in town. While I do know some people who do work at Headlands, they accept the environment and work with it. Yes, it means they get interrupted. Sometimes they are frustrated by the noise or the bad music (which does happen…especially on Friends of Acoustic Music night), but they understand that Headlands is first and foremost a coffeehouse, not an office, and I have never known them to complain about the intrinsic nature of the coffeehouse.

In general, computer users stick to the counter or the small tables, and I appreciate that, because it leaves the bigger tables open for larger groups. I don’t know how much money laptop users are spending there, so I would like to try to avoid generalizing–but it’s not uncommon to see a laptop surrounded by plates and cups, and a table of old men all drinking solo cups of coffee, so I don’t think that the network is hurting Headlands, financially. But sometimes I do come in to see someone using a laptop at a large table when small tables are open, or to a forest of laptops and no open tables. Fair is fair–they were there first and have every bit as much right to be there as I do, but I feel like the environment of Headlands suffers when everyone there is focused on a computer, instead of the world around them, or even the people they are sharing their table with. (And yes, I have been known to instant message someone in the chair next to me.)

While I appreciate the institution of wireless in Headlands, I also hope that it never becomes a problem. I hope that people don’t isolate themselves from each other behind the barrier of a laptop. In my eye, a coffeehouse is a social place, and the internet sometimes seem to discourage social behaviour. I am glad that I still see people reading books at Headlands, and that sometimes I strike up conversations with them on the basis of what they are reading, and our conversations are amiable. But I’m shy to strike up a conversation with someone when I notice what website they are reading (even when it’s my own!). There’s something about the computer that seems so personal to me that it’s almost rude to notice what people are doing on their laptops.

It seems to me that in its current state, the network is working well for Headlands, and I hope that it continues to do so. I know in larger and more urban areas, laptop use at coffeehouses is sometimes plagued with problems, such as customers parking for hours on end and spending little money. As a result, there are now a slew of methods for providing a wireless network to customers which allows the businesses more control over who is using the network, and for how long–and these methods translate into more money. Which in turn must at some point turn into raised prices for the establishment as a whole, meaning that all customers are paying in some form for the network through increased prices on food and drink. Which is sort of unfortunate.

I’m also curious to see how far wireless spreads. Technology has become a very integral and often invasive part of our lives. I am still shocked when people use cellphones in restaurants, in the middle of a conversation of friends, or at the family dinner table. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I’d like to think I’m just better mannered. There is a time and a place for everything, and when my cellphone vibrates in public (and yes, I do set it to vibrate, so that it’s not disrupting other people), I quietly excuse myself to answer the call, if I feel it needs to be answered. The other night I was dining at my favourite establishment and noticed a man talking very loudly on a cellphone at the neighboring table–and when my own phone went off half an hour later, I excused myself from the restaurant floor and found a non-disruptive place to take the call. I really hope restaurants don’t start having wireless networks as well–I can already visualize the horror. Something that we users of technology often don’t consider is that there are other people around us who may have a different view on technology than we do, or may simply not wish to hear the details of our loudly shouted personal conversation. Heck, I still think it’s rude to answer the phone when you have company over, let alone discuss the results of my STD test in the middle of a crowded dining establishment. There’s a certain level of social respect which seems to be vanishing with the insertion of technology, and I am sad to see it.

[Fort Bragg]