WhyFi? Examining the benefits of providing free wireless internet

Examining the benefits of providing free wireless internet access.

In an age when most people spend the bulk of their days staring at computer screens, it's practically a given that our laptops will work wherever we take them. That includes coffee shops, airports, busses and bars.

A growing number of businesses have capitalized on this expectation by turning wireless internet access – known as WiFi – into a customer magnet.

Bellevue has around 30 free WiFi hotspots, with most of the sites clustered around the downtown and Northup/Bel-Red areas, according to a list compiled by MetroBellevue.com.

One of those locations is the 0/8 Seafood Grill on Bellevue Way Northeast.

Owner Matt Bomberger suggests that not having free WiFi is an archaic concept. Then again, he has a background in technology, having worked in business development for Microsoft and AT&T.

“To me, it's just an amenity you offer guests, like giving them water at the table,” he said. “I think people expect it nowadays.”

0/8 is next to the Bellevue Hyatt, which means there's a considerable amount of traffic coming from business travelers and the usual downtown professional crowd. That's exactly the type of multi-tasking clientele that free WiFi tends to attract.

Bomberger said he typically sees a few people accessing his network during breakfast and lunch, but usage really starts to pick up with happy hour.

“I see people coming in who took off early, but they still have a few things to do,” he said.

Providing WiFi access has its price: less than $100 a month for service, plus around $500 for the setup at 0/8.

Bomberger doesn't charge people to use his signal. The Hyatt does, however, and this drives many of its guests to 0/8 for their internet access.

0/8 isn't the only place that's finding success with a wireless connection. At the Bellevue North Shopping Center, Panera Bread is using WiFi to reinforce its image as an everyday oasis.

Store manager Chalos Henneman said he sees the occasional business meeting take place at a four-top, but most of the WiFi users are like Martha Glisky, a psychologist who sat alone catching up on e-mails during her lunch break.

“I would definitely choose this over other places because it has WiFi,” she said. “I started coming here once I saw they had it for free.”

Bellevue resident Josh Bennett was across the room updating his resume.

“I feel more productive this way,” he said. “At home, I have video games, TV, the fridge, my bed. I'm in a relaxed mood and I just want to chill.

“When you're dressed up and out somewhere, you're more focused. You can't just curl up and go to sleep in your bed.”

So what about freeloaders? Does anyone use free WiFi without supporting the businesses that provide it?

Not in Glisky's case.

“I never just use the WiFi,” she said. “I always get at least a drink.”

The city of Bellevue provides free Bellevue Connect WiFi access throughout its downtown core – outdoors only – and at all community centers.

The $280,000 network had over 2,000 unique users who accessed the network around 4,700 times last December, according to city of Bellevue IT manager David Kerr.

“To a large degree, people expect to have a connection wherever they are and wherever they need it, especially in a high-tech environment like downtown Bellevue,” he said.