Free wireless Internet access in coffee houses, bars, and restaurants is making Tulsa a more social place.
You might not think that sitting in front of a computer can promote neighborliness, but it does. You might not imagine that a room full of people sipping coffee while pounding on a keyboard promotes cross-pollination of ideas, but it really works. You wouldn't think that encouraging customers to linger at a restaurant table would boost a restaurant's bottom line, but it can. And it doesn't cost much to make it happen.
Free wireless Internet is allowing more and more students and knowledge workers to break free from their cubicles and their desks and to congregate in public places where serendipity is possible.
Wi-Fi (the marketing name for IEEE standards 802.11b and 802.11g for wireless local area networking) is a technology that uses high frequency radio signals to link one computer to another. The radio signals take the place of data cables. At 54 megabits per second, Wi-Fi data speed is about half the speed of a typical wired connection, but still several times faster than the broadband connection between your home and the rest of the Internet. (The speed is a thousand times faster than the fastest dial-up connection.)
In the last two or three years, nearly every new laptop computer has come equipped with a Wi-Fi transceiver. Wireless routers, which provide the connection between a wired network and wireless computers, are now very inexpensive, and often are already built into the DSL and cable modems that provide your high-speed Internet access.
For someone who needs only a computer with an Internet connection to get his work done, the office can be any café, library, or restaurant with a Wi-Fi signal available for public use.
Many merchants already have a high-speed Internet connection for the purpose of transmitting credit-card transactions. Adding a free Wi-Fi hotspot for customers can be as simple as enabling the wireless transceiver on the high-speed modem you already have installed. (In case you find that worrisome, be assured that strong encryption is used to protect those credit-card transactions from snoopers.)
The only added cost is the electricity used by your customers' laptops. A couple of hours of web surfing may burn a whole penny's worth of electricity.
National chains, like Panera, often require a user to view a special start page and to check a box saying he agrees to the acceptable use policy before granting access. Some use firewall software to filter out websites that are inappropriate for public viewing. Most independently-owned hotspots don't require any red tape and rely on their customers' good judgment. In all the time I've spent at free Wi-Fi hotspots around Tulsa, I have yet to hear of any problems with inappropriate use.
Tulsa has a rapidly growing number of free Wi-Fi hotspots. Tim Williston collects local listings and reviews hotspots at his tulsafreewifi.com website, and his map shows 39 hotspots in cafés and restaurants. I know of several more that haven't made his list yet.
(At the new Wi-Fi-equipped Coffee Shop on Cherry Street, I picked up open signals from the Hideaway Pizza and Subway across the street.) OSU-Tulsa, Tulsa's Central Library and the regional libraries also offer free public hotspots.
A glimpse through last week's UTW turns up several bars and restaurants that advertise Wi-Fi availability: Brookside Lao Thai, Caz's, the BruHouse, Boston's, Cowboy Sharkies.
In addition to use of the free hotspots, AT&T high-speed Internet customers can pay an extra $1.99 a month for FreedomLink service, which provides unlimited access to hotspots in McDonald's Restaurants and Barnes and Noble Bookstores across the country.
How does a free Wi-Fi hotspot help businesses which offer them? The Austin Wireless City Project (austinwirelesscity.org), which promotes and assists in the creation of new hotspots, estimates that free hotspots generated an additional $500,000 in revenue for their member businesses. Bartlesville has recently joined the growing number of cities that are planning to offer wide-area free Wi-Fi service as a way to encourage people to spend time and money downtown.
Restaurants find that free Wi-Fi brings in business during non-peak times of day like mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and the presence of those Wi-Fi customers attracts the attention of other customers.
In New York City's Bryant Park, free Wi-Fi makes it possible for students and professionals to get their work done in the park. The constant presence of people using Wi-Fi makes the park a more inviting place for those who are just out for a picnic, a stroll, or a dose of solar Vitamin D. Closer to home, Dallas is adding free Wi-Fi to several of its city parks.
Beyond the commercial benefits to the hotspot sponsor and the convenience of the hotspot user, what excites me about the growth of free Wi-Fi in Tulsa is the way it encourages social interaction and the spread of ideas and information.
Since most Tulsans are bound to our cars, we tend to encounter the same people over and over again -- the people we work with and go to church with, the people whose kids go to school with our kids. We find ourselves in social ruts, isolated subcultures that limit the spread of information and ideas.
A Wi-Fi-equipped venue gives us the ability to be productive while hanging out in a public place, and hanging out creates the opportunity for chance encounters that could lead to new friendships, new business concepts, and the spread of political, social, and religious ideas.
In my own experience, conversations at Wi-Fi hotspots like Shades of Brown in Brookside, DoubleShot Coffee Company at 18th & Boston, and the new Coffee House on Cherry Street have provided me with solutions to technical problems at work, tipped me off to the latest political scuttlebutt, informed me about exciting new places and happenings around town, and provided me with a sounding board for ideas that find their way into this column. (For some of you dear readers, that might be reason enough to ban all Wi-Fi coffee houses.)
More than any other type of hotspot, the coffee house seems to provide the best atmosphere for serendipity to erupt. Different types of seating make it easy for a conversation to grow organically. You might find yourself sharing a table or counter with a few other laptop users, a natural situation for exchanging a few words with a stranger.
At a coffee house, lingering seems welcome: There's not the sense that you have at a restaurant that you must leave as soon as you're finished with a meal. The noise level doesn't require you to shout to be heard. Opening hours that stretch from early in the morning until late at night make it easier to fit a cup of coffee into a busy schedule. And it doesn't hurt that the drink of choice contains a mild stimulant, rather than a depressant.
While the social nature of a coffee house or pub naturally encourages spontaneous conversations, those chats are more likely to happen when some customers are there on their own, not tied to a conversation partner. The presence of Wi-Fi encourages a solo customer to venture onto the premises, where he's free to jump into an interesting conversation or to stay focused on his laptop screen. There's no awkwardness either way.
And the Internet contains billions of conversation starters. A spontaneous laugh at the latest big video on YouTube.com or a hearty "Hey, have you seen this?" may be all it takes to get a conversation going.
In centuries past, coffee houses and taverns were centers for debate and discussion and, at times, birthplaces of revolution. In the 1520s, the White Horse Inn in Cambridge, England, served up lively theological debate, becoming a conduit for the introduction of Martin Luther's ideas from the Continent.
In 1675, King Charles II of England issued a proclamation to suppress coffee houses, because they had become centers for political dissent: "In such houses divers false, malitious and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad to the Defamation of his Majesty's Government and to the Disturbance of Peace and Quiet of the Realm."
In 1773, the tax protest known as the Boston Tea Party was planned over coffee at the Green Dragon.
Because of their role in facilitating the spread of ideas during the 17th and 18th centuries, coffee houses have been called "the Internet of the Age of Reason." Today the Internet is restoring the role of the coffee house as a marketplace of ideas.
In the Tulsa of my dreams, you'd find a café with a free Wi-Fi hotspot within walking distance of every home, a place that would draw neighbors away from their comfortable sofas and big screen TVs to a place where they might actually meet and get to know one another. In an age when we are less at ease with opening our homes to one another, a Wi-Fi hotspot provides a comfortable, neutral venue for socializing.
If you've never Wi-Fied, get out of the office, find a hotspot, and give it a try this week. If you own a pub or a restaurant, offer free Wi-Fi to your customers. It all adds up to a better quality of life and a more vibrant, dynamic, and social Tulsa.
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