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Train surfing

As the demand for Wi-Fi in cafés reaches breaking point, Meghan Lodwick investigates the relatively untapped source for wireless internet connections: public transport.

As crowds thicken over the weekend, cafés are finding it hard to accommodate the needs of their plugged-in customers. A laptop takes up much more space than a plate of eggs with a latte on the side.

The café Wi-Fi backlash began in the United States when coffee house owners started putting tape on electrical outlets, some even went so far as to revamp their shops, replacing seating with standing bars.

Melbourne is on the verge of the same game of outlet hide and seek. Fair enough, after all is the café really the most appropriate place to double up as an office?

Trevor Simmons opened his Melbourne café, Penny Farthing, with Wi-Fi in mind as he saw it to be a good fiscal draw. Yet eight months after opening he says he has ‘had to ask people to put away laptops on the weekend because there just isn’t any space, this isn’t a library.’

The stench of espresso in Penny Farthing reminded me that I wasn’t in the business of borrowing books, but the handful of customers scattered throughout the café staring at their laptops lent a kind of silence that suggested otherwise.

Cafés were one of the first to catapult free Wi-Fi into popularity when a friendly neighbour beamed a wireless signal into an adjoining coffee shop. Ten years later, it’s time for Wi-Fi to find a more suitable setting so it can put the noise back into coffee.

But where else can you be anti-social, kill time and not type in fear of spilling a hot drink over precious technology? Why, public transport of course!

Since 2006, talk of free Wi-Fi for commuters has led to broken promises and disappointed users. The only hope we have to take back the time wasted commuting are the trials that have been going on since the middle of last year.

In South Australia, there was a six-month trial of one metropolitan bus equipped with all things Wi-Fi, but nothing has evolved from there.

Close to a year on, in February 2010, the Tasmanian Greens decided to roll out an 18-month Wi-Fi bus trial in hopes that they can meet that of ‘Europe’s train system which offers free Wi-Fi for travellers, and is widely recognized as leading the way internationally with over 70,000 ‘hotspots’.

Commercial banking companies like ANZ have also decided to try their clever marketing hand at free Wi-Fi.

Overly adorned throughout Melbourne’s Southern Cross station are banners and kiosks advertising ‘a free Wi-Fi zone’ brought to you by ANZ. It looks like someone threw up blue.

When asked about the new addition, the Metro information centre simply pointed to ‘the yellow building where you can get the best coverage’. They didn’t seem to know that the promotion, which started in June, will only last until the end of this month.

This month, ANZ also launched free access until November for sea-bound commuters travelling the 30 minute journey from Manly to Circular Quay in Sydney. They are setting the foundations because, ANZ announced, ‘the daily commute to and from work is a very natural time for consumers to expect free Wi-Fi services’.

In Europe, free and pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi is available on Virgin trains, Thalys and other public transport providers. In the United States, New York City is moving to wire close to 300 subway stations with free Wi-Fi.

The NSW government is already backing the endeavour between ANZ and the Circular Quay fleet. A little subsidising goes a long way when it comes to getting home on time.

Maybe then you’d have enough time to sit in the café without your laptop. All those hours spent throughout the week waiting and travelling could be put towards productivity instead of stealing space from the founders of free Wi-Fi.

If you see a queue, put it away, but before you do, kindly write a letter to those at Metro and your local council to praise the free trials.

Meghan Lodwick is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and upstart editor.

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