Council plan to spread WiFi comes at cafes' cost

City Hall is keen to see Wi-Fi in cafes and restaurants across Brisbane, but small business owners will have to foot the bill, as Lord Mayor Graham Quirk is offering little more than $3000 worth of window stickers by way of support.

Angry hospitality figures say the campaign – launched today as part of the city's developing Digital Strategy – is a waste of money that will hurt their bottom line.

Gunshop Cafe owner Jason Coolen said many restaurants already had Wi-Fi as part of their business systems, but they didn't advertise the fact to avoid being exploited by customers.

"We're happy to have business people use our Wi-Fi for business meetings and the like, and it's fine for customers who're just looking for basic services, but we can't afford to have people come in and download movies and eat up our data," Mr Coolen said.

"They should be focusing on eating their food and drink and having a conversation with friends anyway. I think this policy is just another cost put on the hospitality industry by council, they should subsidise the Wi-Fi if they were serious about this, not just give out stickers."

But Cr Quirk defended the initiative, saying it wasn't compulsory for businesses to sign-up. The Wi-Fi policy and stickers were designed to bring extra trade to cafes and restaurants and would help boost Brisbane's reputation as a "switched on city", he said.

The announcement follows figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics yesterday showing spending at cafes and restaurants fell from July to October, the first quarterly drop in more than a year.

Restaurateurs critical of the scheme's likely impact on phone and internet bills should "toughen up" Cr Quirk said, confirming council would not extend the free Wi-Fi already offered across public spaces as part of the plan.

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going," he said. "These free Wi-Fi stickers give businesses another chance to say we're a friendly, digital business, come in and do some business with us.

"Why should the ratepayers be up for the cost of those things when we can do it in partnership with business? I think this is the sensible way to go."

The Wi-Fi drive will see participating businesses would receive a high visibility sticker for their shopfront and their location promoted via a free listing on a Google map of ‘Brisbanewi-fi hot-spots’. The businesses will also be included on the Digital Brisbane website.

Cr Quirk said the policy worked along similar lines to the city's Food Safe initiative, in which operators consent to having their council-issued food standards ratings published on a website for the benefit of diners.

But Mr Coolen said even Food Safe was problematic.

"It still costs us money on top of what we already pay to council in terms of licensing and foot path dining," he said. "It's just another cash-gouge from council – and even more stickers we're supposed to now plaster all over our windows and doors.

"If council was serious about helping small businesses there are better ways to do it."

Another CBD cafe owner – who did not wish to be named – said she could see the merit of offering Wi-Fi to customers, but that most outlets could little afford the extra cost.

"It'd be different if council helped support the program by offering to pay for some of the downloading that would go on," she said.

"If we've got a digital strategy, surely more public Wi-Fi would be a top priority."

Cr Quirk said that the cafe initiative was just one aspect of a strategy that would be revealed in full early next year.

The man responsible for the development of that strategy, Brisbane's chief digital officer Kieran O'Hea, said Brisbane businesses had some way to go in terms of recognising the economic potential of the internet.

He said the push for small businesses to install Wi-Fi for customers was an important part of bringing Brisbane to the forefront of the digital economy.

"I think today we're acknowledging a similar-minded group of people – basically people who are going out, installing Wi-Fi at their own cost, to keep customers, attract customers, and basically promote their business – and I hope other people follow their lead," he said.

"We need to develop a digital culture where everyone is getting involved – but we'll be doing bigger, far-reaching projects down the track."

An audit of Brisbane businesses conducted to help formulate the digital strategy earlier this year graded the city a "C", indicating it could do better.

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