There Are No Free Lunch Bits or Bytes

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Here's a news flash. People who never allow more than a few millimeters to come between their laptops and their noses and who are so engrossed in chat rooms or massively interactive online games that they are oblivious to their surroundings rarely interrupt these activities to buy stuff--unless, of course, they buy it on the 'net. I thought that this fact would not be terribly surprising to anyone, but it apparently comes as huge shock to some café owners.

According to a June 13, 2005, New York Times article, many café owners who offer wireless Internet access are finding that users of this service often don't spend much money on the cafés' more traditional fare. Go figure. Who would have thought it? It seems that it's hard to drink a latte or eat a croissant if your hands never leave the keyboard.

What really amazes me is that some people seem to think that they have a deity-given right to Internet access and that coffee shops and bistros should provide that access even if doing so bankrupts the owners. At the café that's the focus of the NYT article, some single people (just to be clear, they enter the café and occupy tables singly; the article doesn't speculate about their marital status) with laptops spend hours occupying tables meant for four people. During that whole time, many of them buy only one drink and sometimes not even that. Then they get belligerent if the staff should politely suggest that, ahem, maybe the café would like to save a table or two for people who are actually going to buy something and, thereby, contribute to the café's lease payments, property taxes, utilities, salaries, and, heaven forbid, a little profit.

When the café mentioned in the article realized that it was taking a hit to its bottom line because of the freeloaders, it disconnected its Wi-Fi access, which resulted in more seats filled and higher revenues. However, after Internet access was eliminated, one regular customer stood there repeating, "That just doesn't work for me." The article didn't say so, but I suspect that each repetition was in an increasingly loud voice. Hmm, maybe it doesn't work for him or her, but did the patron ever think that maybe insolvency just doesn't work for the café owner?

Most of the people who expect cafés and other establishments to provide free Internet access without asking for anything in return would probably be insulted if you suggested they were freeloaders, but it seems to be a common affliction when it comes to Web browsing. For example, some people get upset by advertising on the Web, even when that advertising accompanies and pays for valuable information that the viewer can see without paying a subscription or any other fee to the Web site owner. I'm not one of these people. I adore Web advertising.

OK, maybe I'm not exactly in love with those incredibly gaudy, fit-inducing, rapidly flashing ads that inform me and everyone else who sees them that we are all the 1,000,000th visitor to the site and, therefore, in line for some totally awe-inspiring prize. True, I could do without those particular ads, but I love the concept of Internet advertising in general. It allows me to read articles on some of my favorite news and information sites for free. It also means that MC Press can afford to pay me the bus transfer that I get for writing these tirades. And they can give me that bus transfer without charging you to read my columns.

Yes, some Web advertising is annoying, but certainly none on these pages. I can sincerely say that all of the ads that appear here are fabulous and you should definitely consider spending as much money as you possibly can--go into hock if necessary--to buy the goods and services that they promote. While you're at it, call up the advertisers and tell them how much you absolutely love them for paying to give you the opportunity to see their ads and, by the way, read my tirades. If you do, advertisers will find these pages more valuable and I may be able to hit MC Press up for two bus transfers per column instead of just one.

Who's responsible for the common, misplaced expectation of something for nothing on the Web? I blame the early Internet entrepreneurs. Their rallying cry was, "Build traffic now and worry about making money later." Many of them gave Web-based services away without even thinking far enough ahead to figure out how they might, maybe, possibly, one day in the very, very distant future, be able to charge someone for what they were then providing for free. Somebody should have put these people in straightjackets before they were allowed anywhere near a business or the Web. Instead, they started companies and created monsters. People began to think that there actually was a free lunch on the Internet, even if it was only a virtual meal. What fools!

Here's the scoop, folks. Some companies spend a whole lot of money to dig up streets, lay cables, and then fill in the holes again. Other companies spend a heap of money to pay people to create stuff to put out on the Web. Those companies then buy and maintain computers and disk drives to store all of that content; either that or they pay some other company to buy and manage those computers and disk drives for them. Somebody also needs to buy network routers to deliver the content to you over the cables laid by those other companies. Even if the connection to your computer is a wireless one provided by somebody else, the provider has to pay for the transmitter and the connection to the wired Internet. Then, of course, there is all of the backbone equipment that directs traffic through the mighty Web. Somebody has to pay for that, too. All of these things and more are necessary in order to continue to provide the Internet that you've come to hold so dear.

Here's the really shocking thing that you probably don't realize: The companies who do all of this would like to at least cover their costs and hopefully a tiny bit more. And they aren't going to stick around if they can't do that. Even if they would like to continue to provide you with something for nothing, their creditors might have a thing or two to say about that.

All right, I've finished my tirade against virtual freeloaders. Just as an aside, based on some of the comments in the forums attached to past tirades, I suspect that many of my American readers will find it ironic that I, someone from the "liberal" country to the north, am mocking people who expect something for nothing, but there you have it. Despite coming from allegedly left-wing Canada, I definitely do not think that it's anyone's deity-given right to get Internet access for nothing at a table provided at someone else's expense. That's apropos of absolutely nothing, but I'm told that the publisher likes to see a lot of traffic in the article forums. Whenever I mention purported social differences between Canada and the U.S., even if I do so only in passing, forum traffic tends to soar. I like to keep the publisher happy.

Now, for those of you who are reading this online through wireless Internet access provided by a café, here's a suggestion: Take a break from your laptop. Order a double espresso. A little carrot cake might go well with that. If you're at the café through lunch or dinnertime, buy a sandwich. Who knows, if you repeat this prescription at least once an hour, maybe your favorite café and its Internet access will still be there when you come back tomorrow. You'll probably also enjoy the heartfelt "thank you" that you'll likely hear from the café staff, particularly if you leave a generous tip.

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. He does not believe that there is such a thing as a free lunch, but he'd be happy to let you pick up the check if you'd like to try to prove him wrong.