SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Coffee shops are no longer the exclusive province when it comes to providing wireless Internet.
A growing number of area businesses — from chains like Subway and McDonald's to sit-down restaurants situated on Broadway — are now offering complimentary Internet access to their customers.
Christel MacLean, the owner of Circus Café in Saratoga Springs, said the restaurant began providing wireless Internet two weeks ago, and that it quickly became a magnet for businesspeople looking to break out of the office but who still need to get work done.
"People have been responding really well to it, and we’re getting a lot of new people who haven’t been in before, especially at lunchtime, who now feel as if they can multitask and see this as a great alternative spot to do some work and have a nice lunch," she said.
The investment to install wireless capabilities was "nominal" and has already likely paid for itself based on the growth of her customer base, MacLean said.
Lorraine Murphy, the owner of Bettie’s Cupcakes in Saratoga Springs’ Downstreet Marketplace, also offers wireless Internet to her customers, though she says the establishment draws a different demographic.
Mothers taking a break from shopping, Skidmore students and other downtown business owners have all popped into the store to briefly use their computers, she said.
"We understand we’re not a place where you’re going to study for exam, but it is a great place to pop off some e-mails and get some quick work done," Murphy said.
Dan DeFedericis, a Saratoga Springs resident, makes frequent use of wireless Internet offered by downtown businesses to write his blog and to study for the bar exam.
Even if the workload is the same, he said, escaping home and working downtown takes some of the sting out of studying.
The practice has become so common, DeFedericis said, that he isn’t likely to visit a business that doesn’t provide free wireless Internet.
"Anywhere where I would want to go and want to sit down and do some work is going to offer me free Wi-Fi," he said last week. "It’s become an expectation for me as a customer."
Whether or not other downtown businesses will also soon begin to offer Internet, though, remains unclear.
A task force created in Saratoga Springs more than two years ago to organize and develop a city-wide wireless network that downtown business could have tapped into disbanded months after forming.
Costs, outdated infrastructure and contract negotiations with an Internet provider were among the obstacles the volunteer group was faced with and could not overcome.
But Jennifer Leidig, who co-chaired the task force, said she remains hopeful that the business owners and city officials can find a way to see the idea to fruition, whether through a collective approach or by individuals taking the initiative on their own.
Wireless Internet in downtown stores and public spaces would help broaden access for those who don’t have Internet at home, help businesses grow and be used by tourists visiting the area, Leidig said.
"These people don’t have offices when they’re here, and we need to be as technologically accessible for these visitors as possible," she said.
Saratoga Springs supervisor Joanne Yepsen, who was also involved with the task force, said the discussion about providing wireless Internet is ongoing and that there is still support for the idea.
County officials recently voted to apply for a Google-backed initiative in which the company would test ultra-high-speed Internet in one or two communities across the country.
Thousands of cities have applied, but Yepsen said she’s hopeful the county’s application will pay dividends.
"It will be very competitive, but we’re throwing our hat in the ring and I think we have a shot," she said. "You can’t know until you ask."