Study: Wi-Fi Users Are Not Freeloaders (UPDATED)

Since this story was originally reported, it has been updated to correct the name of Free-HotSpot.com.

Offering free Wi-Fi can get a cafe more customers, and they’re browsers, not table-hogs, according to a study of Paris coffee shops.

The study tracked Wi-Fi usage at five Paris branches of coffee chain Columbus Cafe over three months.

According to the chain’s Wi-Fi provider Free-HotSpot.com, the sites attracted three to five times more users per day than paid-for rivals, but those users stayed online for less time on average than paying users.

Free-HotSpot.com Vice President Joe Brunoli claimed that the study confounded the popular idea that free Wi-Fi would lead to Internet junkies hogging tables during busy times such as the lunch hour.

"Instead, usage tends to be in the afternoon, which is traditionally a downtime for the hospitality industry," he said. Only 3 percent of usage was after the cafes’ 8 p.m. closing time, he added.

Connection stats showed the cafe hot spots attracted nine to 10 users a day Monday to Friday, falling to six a day on weekends. That sounds tiny, but Brunoli claimed that usage at pay hot spots can be as low as one or two connections a day.

The average length of connection was 89 minutes, which Brunoli said was shorter than expected, but made sense in hindsight.

"It’s free, so there’s no fear that you’re wasting money," he explained. "Connection-hogging is more of a problem for paid schemes, where people think, ‘I’ve paid for this, so I’m going to use it!’ "

He added that if each user spends an average of 3 euros (US$5.51), the extra business generated will easily cover the 25-euro-a-month cost of providing the DSL connection. Hot-spot installation costs around 90 euros, he said, while ongoing maintenance is paid for by his company from its advertising revenue.

That assumes that Wi-Fi users are indeed additional customers, which isn’t necessarily true, of course. However, Columbus Cafe’s marketing director, Luc Heitz, said Wi-Fi is important for keeping existing customers as well.

"Wi-Fi access is one more amenity, one more added service that we can offer to make our existing customers feel at home, and to attract new customers," he said. "Most of the customers using the service are business people or students, who are our main target.

"It is difficult to say if the free Wi-Fi service is encouraging them to come into the cafe or not, but what we can say is that these people have been regularly using the service since it was installed. I’m sure they’ve been talking about the service with friends and family, and thanks to that, more and more people are now coming to the cafe."

-Bryan Betts, Techworld.com (London)

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