The Neverending Search for “Free” Wi-Fi

So, I’m a freelancer. I work a lot on remote machines as a system administrator, a troubleshooter of LAMP stacks and web applications, etc. I also do a little bit of web development (but not design. I’m a horrible designer). I work from home a lot. I used to work outside of the home a lot, but what I found is that “free” wireless access has so many downsides that it’s just easier to stay home. I live in the Princeton, NJ area, and have attempted to get free wireless access at Barnes & Noble, Borders, Panera, Starbucks, and a few local businesses. Here’s what I found:

Panera Bread

Yes, the wireless access is free, but it kicks you off for TWO HOURS during the lunch rush. What makes this truly horrible is that there isn’t (as far as I know) an option to *pay* for your wireless access and bypass this limitation. The odd thing is that it seems to backfire on them: if I were able to browse my RSS feeds while I ate a nice Panera lunch, I’d probably stick around. As it stands, if I go there at all, I leave at lunch time and either go home or somewhere else. I’ll eat breakfast there because they don’t turn off wireless at that time.

Turning off wireless is just not acceptable for someone who needs it to be on pretty much all the time. Clearly, Panera isn’t catering to people who are going to hang around there all day, but maybe they should: if they didn’t turn off wifi, I’d spend more than double what I spend there in a given day. I get a coffee and maybe a pastry in the morning, but if wifi stayed on, or I had the option of paying for it, I’d add to that a Frontega Chicken sandwich, maybe a bread bowl of soup in the winter, and at least two lemonades.

But now… I go somewhere else.

Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble recently announced that they now have free wifi. The problems with going to BN for this are many. First, going free increases demand for free wifi, which of course increases the demand for power outlets. There are surprisingly few at the location near me. The cafe area in particular hasn’t got even one single power outlet.

But power availability isn’t the worst of it. The worst part is that AT&T runs the wifi access, and as soon as I saw that, I knew something was going to be completely wrong, and I was right: AT&T drops your DHCP lease every 2 hours. EVERY TWO HOURS. There’s no warning dialog either that pops up to say “hey, we’re gonna drop you in 10 minutes”. Things just disappear. Then you have to visit the registration page again and click a checkbox and a button to be reconnected.

Probably ok for a casual email checker, but not for anyone looking to hang out for a while and do “real work”.


Ugh. Forget it. AT&T runs this one as well, and when I asked at my local store how to get on, they asked about my Starbucks card. I have one of those black cards that they call a “Gold Card”. Whatever. The numbers are worn off of it, and I only use it as a discount card — it’s not registered. So it needs to be registered, and then I have to WAIT 48 HOURS, and then I’m entitled to 2 hours free wifi per day. But to register, I have to go through some procedure, and they had to find a way to retrieve the last 4 numbers on my card, because they put the numbers in the area that gets swiped (bright), and they’d rubbed off.

I considered getting one of the new mini cards, which has numbers embedded underneath the plastic, but it was recommended that I stick with only one card or the other. There was seemingly no valid reason for this. I didn’t understand the recommendation, but whatever.

The alternative is to pay for it on the spot, which I might’ve done, but the wifi was down when I tried to connect.

Anyway, this all seems rather messy, doesn’t it? Between my iPhone, Barnes & Noble, and Starbucks, AT&T is making nothing so clear as the fact that they don’t want my money.


I’m actually writing this post from a Border’s bookstore. The wi-fi here IS NOT free. Know what that means? Well, it means I have to pay for it of course, but it also means there’s almost nobody here. In a cafe area that probably seats 60 or more, at 10:15AM, there are 4 people here, and I’m the only one with a laptop.

Wi-fi here is $8 for a day pass, which isn’t horrifically bad. What *is* pretty bad is that almost all of the chairs here are made of 100% hard wood with no padding of any kind. What is HORRIBLY HORRIBLY bad here is the food. If it’s advertised as edible, DON’T EAT IT. I mean bad. There aren’t English words to describe the badness. It’s No Bueno™. The selection of lunch-worthy food is super small, too. And bad. Did I say the food is bad? It is.

So I pay $8, I get access for 24 hours, and I can leave and walk across the parking lot for lunch, come back, and sign right back in. Not bad. If I had my lap desk with me, I could even sit in one of the well-padded armchairs. I feel a little guilty spending almost no money here, but I’ve *tried* to spend money on food and drinks, and I’ve really just been horribly disappointed. The only thing I’ll ingest here is the coffee. The saving grace for my conscience is that I’m paying for the wi-fi, so I don’t feel the need to spend money on stuff I might not otherwise be interested in.

The Locals Win It

Two local businesses stand out in terms of their free wifi offering. A local person that it turns out I actually know opened up a Camille’s Cafe, and there’s a local coffee shop in Hopewell that I am slowly starting to adore.

Camille’s is closer to my house, but it has, for the entire place, something like two power supplies, and they’re not placed very conveniently. However, the wifi is Really, Truly Free, and that’s good. The food is also good, and you can get healthy stuff there, so I don’t have to buy something deep-fried or made of 85% refined sugar to justify my being there sucking up their wifi.

The local coffee shop is perhaps my favorite place. The wifi is Really, Truly Free, and I would call the power situation “adequate”. The coffee and the food are both really good, and you can also get healthy stuff there. The only problem that exists at this place is parking, but usually I can get around that without too much trouble.

  • Matt Simmons

    Whenever I write, I go to this little coffee shop in downtown Westfield called “Rockin’ Joe’s”. The music is loud and it gets crowded, but for whatever reason, those two conditions are prime time for my brain to write. In a quiet place, I get fidgety and small changes interrupt me, and interruptions make me likely to check mail or twitter. In a bustling, busy, loud place, my mind effectively filters out all of the distractions and I write pretty continuously.

    So yes, I enjoy the local places, too. At one point, back in Ohio, a huge storm came through and knocked out power to half the city for days. The town I worked in was tore up severely, and our home didn’t have power or internet, so my wife and I became technomads. We tried putting up with Panera for a while, but it eventually got to us, and we found a local bar that advertised wireless. It actually ended up being a very effective place to work through the day.

  • William Bilancio

    The local libraries in your area have free wifi, but don’t have food. Also the Hooters in the Mercer Mall has “free wifi” as well as the Triumph Brewery in Princeton.

    But I agree the Paneras thing is a big turn off. I would also check around for a local co-working site.

  • Ryan

    I just moved to Tucson AZ and started my first day of telecommuting. Originally I was going to work from my inlaws house… but they live in the sticks so I have to go out and about to find a place to work from. I am lucky in that I have sprint broadband card, but at least on the NW side of Tucson, there was a dearth of comfortable palces to work from. Similar issues… Bad food, crowded, no power outlets, hard chairs, hard chairs… did I mention hard chairs?