Does free internet access really exist?

29th May, 2010

Dear Economist,
While on a brief break in Devon, I was sitting in a coffee shop that provides free wireless internet access. As the lunch hour approached, the proprietor asked me to vacate the table for four because he wanted it to be free for a lunch party. This made me feel as though he didn’t really appreciate my being there – even as a paying customer.

Should the coffee shop offer wireless internet access if it isn’t willing to accept the opportunity cost associated with it?

Jon Upton, Paris, France

Dear Jon,

As a man whose espresso is rarely complete without a laptop alongside it, I sympathise with your plight. But I also sympathise with the difficulties of the café owner. The café, like many businesses, offers free goods and services bundled together with the products it sells. You are charged for your coffee, but not for the use of a cup and saucer. Sugar is free.

The trouble is that sometimes these services can be very costly to provide. At lunchtime the opportunity cost of letting you take up a table for four is substantial. Sometimes restaurants cope with this by charging high premiums for products that go hand in hand with long sittings – wine, starters and desserts. At other times they are forced to be more direct.

The wireless access, cheap to provide at any time, is a side-issue. The difficulty is that people like you take it as an invitation worth abusing. Perhaps the proprietor should switch it off at lunchtime. Perhaps he should forewarn customers with a little sign.

But should that be necessary? There are tacit agreements governing the fair use of these “free” resources. If you had walked off with your cup and saucer, or half a kilo of sugar, the owner would have challenged you, sign or no sign. Would you then have felt unwelcome? You would have been unwelcome for a reason.

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