We've noted in the past how bread maker Panera bread was quite happy with the results of its free WiFi offering, claiming that it improved business -- bringing in more customers and having them stay longer, especially during off-peak hours. That was a claim that was seen over and over again with early efforts at retail WiFi. However, times are changing in a variety of interesting ways. First, as more people have WiFi-enabled laptops and devices, suddenly what was just filling in the slow times means that some retail establishments are now getting upset at overcrowding by the laptop crowd. We noted this last year when one Seattle coffee shop decided it had had enough and simply turned off the free WiFi on weekends. Now, however, comes a report that Panera, one of the champions of free WiFi, may be turning off free WiFi during peak hours in order to keep the connected crew from clogging up the seating. It's unclear if this is a Panera-wide policy, or something that was just instituted at this one location. However, as the writer points out, the city of Santa Monica, where this took place, is offering free muni-WiFi in the same area -- meaning that turning off the WiFi won't necessarily stop people from connecting (though, it also means people can go to other nearby places and still use WiFi as well). This could raise some questions about how all of these muni-WiFi efforts will impact the various coffee shops and other retail establishments that have been using free WiFi to attract more business.
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