The Wi-Fi war | Inquirer Opinion
At Large

The Wi-Fi war

I was at SM Megamall recently, prepared to spend the bulk of a day in the premises: There was a 10 a.m. meeting, after which I was supposed to hold another meeting at 4 p.m. In preparation, I brought my laptop and some materials to write my column in between, since it was a “deadline day.”

Well, guess what, the afternoon meeting was cancelled. I didn’t mind it all that much—more time, less pressure to write my column, right?

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After our early lunch, I was left by myself at the restaurant and was elated to discover that I could access free Wi-Fi. Only later, after I had checked and answered e-mail and begun to write my column, did a waiter tell me that the mall-wide free Wi-Fi was “good for only one hour.” You guessed it: The hour elapsed just as I was about to send my column. Arrgh!

I tried all sorts of gambits: exiting my account and logging on again in a vain attempt to “fool” the Wi-Fi gods, accessing other service providers, even using my pocket Wi-Fi (just my luck, my prepaid load had just run out).

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Anxious not to miss my deadline, I decided to move to another location which, I hoped, would have its own Wi-Fi service, even if I had to pay for it. The first place I stopped by was a coffee shop on the third floor from where I had previously accessed the Internet. Good thing I thought to inquire first before ordering anything.

“We used to have Wi-Fi service,” apologized the young barista. “But the owners decided to pull it out because so many students were just hanging out here and working on their laptops.”

The good news is that I moved up to another floor and another coffee shop which provides Wi-Fi, but not for free. I had to buy a membership card (and a cup of coffee) before the barista would give me the password.

* * *

All of which has led me to reflect on the intersection of marketing, customer service, and free Wi-Fi. I mean, shops, stores, theaters, cafés and restaurants in malls—not to mention the malls themselves—spend millions to entice the public to drop by and spend time in their establishments, believing that the more time customers spend in their vicinity, the more they’ll end up consuming and spending.

But there is, it seems, a limit to businesses’ patience and tolerance for the company of customers. You’re welcome to come, sit and stay—but only for a while. Stay longer, or beyond the time limit before the staff’s patience runs out—and you become an inconvenience, a pest, a disturber of the peace.

Else why limit mall-wide free Wi-Fi for just an hour’s use? Why ask customers to pay for the privilege of using their laptops along with buying your overpriced coffee and stale pastries? Isn’t free Wi-Fi supposed to entice your customers to drop by and spend time, on the expectation that the longer they stay within sight of your coffee machines, the more coffee they’ll order?

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And, oh yes, at the restaurant where we held our meeting and had lunch, I asked permission to charge my cell phone and was told I’d have to pay a hundred bucks for the “privilege.” So much for customer service.

* * *

I’m writing about this earthshaking issue because in a recent edition of the New York Times is an article about an escalating “war” between a group of elderly residents of Yonkers (in Queens), most of them of Korean extraction, and a local McDonald’s where the police have gotten involved. And where, writes the Times, “medium cups of coffee ($1.09 each) have been spilled; harsh words have been exchanged. And still—proud, defiant and stuck in their ways—they file in each morning, staging a de facto sit-in amid the McNuggets.”

Several times a day, police on patrol barge into the “McDo” and gently prod the senior citizens to leave the premises. Most comply, says the report, but they either step out for a smoke, or circle the block several times and reenter the fast-food joint once the police drive away.

“It’s a McDonald’s,” said Martha Anderson, the general manager, “not a senior center.”

The irony is that the area does not lack facilities for seniors, including a Korean community center whose manager even converted the basement into a coffee shop that serves coffee even cheaper than McDonald’s. But no one bothers to drop by. Neither are other fast-food places like a Burger King or another McDonald’s filled ceiling to floor with neatly dressed and otherwise well-behaved elderly Koreans. No one could explain the particular draw of that particular McDonald’s, except that the seniors say all their friends gather there.

* * *

Sometimes, being too hospitable and welcoming can be a drawback.

But the case of the McDonald’s in Flushing draws attention to other places that hold a mysterious allure to older people with too much time on their hands and the leisure to make use of that time hanging out and observing the world walk by.

Mornings at malls, I’m told, is a world populated by seniors who saunter by in their uniforms of puruntong or walking shorts, T-shirts, rubber shoes and baseball caps, and end their peregrinations with a cup (or two, or more) of coffee at coffee shops, reading newspapers and debating national issues with their friends. Sometimes, they’re joined by preppy freelancers working furiously on their laptops (I’ve seen many sales conferences conducted in Starbucks and, yes, McDonald’s), or by groups of students planning their group project while huddled over a laptop or tablet.

I have yet to hear of a fracas between management, staff and customers over such table-hogging groups, but I guess stopping free Wi-Fi service is but the shot across the bow in an escalating war.

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TAGS: column, internet, Rina Jimenez-David, Shopping Malls, wi-fi
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