May 10, 2006

The right way to run a Wi-Fi cafe

Author: Nathan Willis

One of the benefits of living in a place as exotic as Abilene, Texas, is that it presents you with a choice of not one but three Internet-connected coffee shops. Last week, I spent an afternoon in each, scouting for the place I'll go to hole up and get work done this summer when the triple-digit temperatures hit, when mentally calculating the air conditioning costs begins to prove too distracting at home. I haven't yet reached a final decision, but I have some choice words for anyone weighing the idea of starting up a new Internet coffee shop.

Before I begin, let's be crystal clear about one thing: When I say Internet-connected coffee shop, I mean free Internet. I'm looking at you, T-Mobile and Starbucks -- if I'm interested in paying for a wireless connection, I can do that pretty much anywhere (not to mention more cheaply) without you.

Tip 1: Do as little as possible

Networking-wise, that is. Blocking ports, running portal sign-in pages, time-limiting Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) leases, and all other forms of interference are a waste of your time and your customers'. Consider timing out DHCP leases -- one of the local coffee shops here does that. All the DHCP lease can even theoretically do is make things worse. When it functions properly and the leases are renewed after 30 minutes, nothing is accomplished. When it breaks, it ticks off everyone in the building. The only thing it adds to the customer's experience is the possibility of a new failure mode.

Similarly, don't block ports. As a provider of Internet connectivity, you're not liable if someone wanders into your establishment and uses your connection to post seditious rants about invading Canada or to upload soap operas to peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. On the other hand, by making an ill-informed, arbitrary decision about what TCP ports to permit traffic on, you'll drive away knowledgeable customers who need services such as Secure Shell (SSH), and kids who spend several hours a day gaming and are more than happy to buy beverages from you while they do it.

One of my local coffee shops has browser-detection code in its portal page. Browser detection? What are we, cave men?!?

Tip 2: Do the security right

Start with your router. Broadcast a meaningfully chosen service set identifier (SSID); a wireless network named linksys or wrt54g might as well be named attack me. Besides, naming your network after your establishment makes it clearer to customers which network they need to connect to.

Next, put some basic security measures in place, such as disallowing router management from the Wi-Fi network, changing the default password, and enabling (at least) the basic firewall.

Then tackle the air itself. Encryption: don't leave home without it. There isn't a Wi-Fi-capable machine in the world that cannot connect via password-protected Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), and it can make the difference between happy repeat customers and angry snooping victims. I know you don't like to talk about it, but we both know you've already overpaid for that faux-driftwood-framed blackboard on which your assistant manager writes the blends of the day in colored chalk. Add the password to it; you'll look hip to the youngsters, and you might drive a few leechers in from the parking lot. They'll probably still be cheapskates, but that's where your attractive sales staff is supposed to take over.

Tip 3: Preserve the ever-shrinking comfort zone

This boils down to a few key points: Carpet and electrical outlets are good; loud music and hard wooden chairs are bad. I guess the theory behind the tragic proliferation of uncomfortable seating and bad atmosphere is that the quicker you get one customer out, the quicker you get the next one in. I'm no MBA, but that seems short-sighted.

Luckily, the things that attract the Wi-Fi-using laptop toters are the same things that attract coffee shop customers in general. Quiet acoustics let people talk, and they allow computer users to focus on their work. Only electrical outlets offer no real parallel to non-computing customers' needs.

Here, though, pinching pennies and capping the outlets guarantees you less business, and is unnecessary to boot. You can get an electrical usage meter and measure how much juice it takes to charge a laptop battery -- even if all of your outlets are in use all day long, it's still nothing compared to the heating and air-conditioning bill. Besides, we all know the real money comes from charging four dollars for a paper cup filled with milk and coffee. If you're worried about the margins, try to sell more coffee. It's better for business anyway.

Tip 4: Be your own boss

Broadband is cheap, especially compared to commercial rent. Don't get duped by the local wireless Internet service providers (WISP) who want to brand your in-store service. It's a fad, and it only benefits the service provider. Using a time-limited DHCP lease redirects traffic through a portal Web page that users must keep open. It is without a doubt the most irritating thing in the commercial wireless world, and it is forced upon the customer by Clearwire, the WISP that "sponsors" coffee shops' connections in the hopes of selling more home service contracts. I am confident it does not succeed at that.

Only slightly better is one coffee shop that runs a straight no-frills-and-no-browser-ads connection, but has every flat surface in the joint plastered with stickers and signs advertising its WISP sponsor. Even if you don't see the obvious turn-off to customers of this captive propaganda, you surely must recognize that if these WISPs ever start making actual money, they'll increase the rate they charge you to the maximum limit you can afford. And those that never manage to turn a profit will leave you high and dry, scrambling to find a new connection without any time to spare.

It's far better to shop for a normal, business-class DSL line that you can use with no strings attached. More flexibility, fewer annoyances -- these are good things.

Who cares, exactly?

Well, there you have it. If I left something out, feel free to chime in below.

NewsForge readers are among the computer-using customer set, and we want a good Internet coffee shop experience. But since we also have more experience than average at system administration and network administration tasks, we're in a position to prove helpful. I'd be exaggerating to call it a "win-win" scenario -- really, I just want to find a decent coffee shop with a good free network before the July sun starts baking me through the roof.

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