Many Starbucks stores have resorted to removing their power sockets as a passive aggressive way of discouraging ‘squatters’ – people who settle in for many hours at a time in their stores, using the free Wi-Fi and electricity, but not buying any of the sometimes very overpriced drinks Starbucks hope to sell to their visitors.
Starbucks has always had to walk a delicate line between creating a warm welcoming environment to bring people into its stores on the one hand, and having people stay too long on the other hand. Since 2002, one of its key tools in bringing people in to its stores has been the provision of Wi-Fi – a modern-day equivalent, perhaps, of the famed Viennese coffee shops and their provision of free newspapers to read.
Starbucks first teamed with T-Mobile for the in-store Wi-Fi, and then in 2008 switched to a relationship with AT&T. Their strategy to encourage people to come, but not stay too long, was to give two free hours of connectivity, then to charge for additional connection time subsequently, but in 2010 they decided to allow unlimited access (we’re not sure why, other than perhaps to compete with McDonalds, which six months earlier had started offering unlimited access to its diners).
I vividly remember writing about the first Starbucks stores with Wi-Fi back in 2002, and in particular, marveling that even a tiny Starbucks store provided a massive full T-1 connection to the internet. A T-1 is a 1.54 Mb line, and in 2002, it sure seemed to be very fast indeed, much faster than even a handful of coffee drinkers would need when sharing it between them.
To put the T-1 into context, back then a cell-phone might be able to connect to the internet via GPRS, a very slow protocol that typically seemed to give about 20 kb/sec connection speeds. There were of course no tablets. In 2003, a slightly faster protocol, EDGE, started to appear, offering maybe 50 kb/sec if you were lucky. 1.54Mb seemed faster than anyone would ever need.
How times have changed. Most of us now have data speeds at home that are many times faster than a T-1, and for our phones, I often find if I’m at a Starbucks I get much faster data connections by using the LTE connection on my phone rather than connecting to the now slow-seeming Starbucks Wi-Fi.
Of course, not everyone at a Starbucks is using a phone with an alternate means of accessing the internet more quickly. Most of the growing legion of tablet users, and nearly all the laptop users, rely on the Starbucks Wi-Fi, which has become increasingly congested as well as comparatively slower and slower.
Starbucks has now responded to this, and announced on Wednesday it will be upgrading its more than 7,000 stores across the US to a new Wi-Fi service in partnership with Google (underlying connectivity by Level 3), which will have ‘up to’ ten times the bandwidth of present in-store connections, and in some cases, as much as 100 times the bandwidth.
Apparently it will remain free for unlimited use, too. All the more reason to settle in to one of their cozy comfy chairs and stay a while, or at least until your battery dies.
Some stores will convert to the new service starting as soon as next week, and it will take about 18 months for all their stores to switch to the new service and speed.
AT&T is feeling rather unloved and rejected. It says it offered the same connection speeds to Starbucks, but apparently Google is ‘adding value’ in other respects too. Our guess is that the value-adds may take the form of a more intrusive appearance of Google and Starbucks content inserted into the Wi-Fi streams served at their stores.
AT&T also notes that it still has over 25,000 Wi-Fi points in the US.
More details here.