Small businesses tap into free WiFi

On any given morning, the coffee bar in the Renaissance Dupont Circle is besieged by laptop-toting Washingtonians settling in for a few hours of checking e-mails, researching or simply surfing the Web, thanks to the free WiFi.

Pranav Vora used to camp out at the coffee bar three times a week, when he was getting Hugh & Crye, the Georgetown-based men’s shirting line he co-founded, off the ground. The space, he said, “felt more professional than Starbucks,” plus the Illy coffee was addictive.

“I’d go about three times a week for three, four hours at a time,” Vora said. “We started off very lean and have been careful about recurring expenses.”

Whether they’re at the Renaissance or Starbucks, entrepreneurs such as Vora are taking advantage of free Internet access to reduce expenses. This is certainly not a new trend, but small-business people say it has become more prevalent, as start-ups must stretch every dollar in a restrained lending environment. Telecommuting has also become so commonplace that offering free WiFi is as much a business proposition for retailers and hotels as it is a service to customers.

At least that’s how Matthew Felix, general manager of the Renaissance Dupont Circle, sees it. Sure, it would be nice if the laptop crowd came to the hotel for more than free WiFi and coffee, but they bring business and occasionally stay for meals. “Our lobby is conducive to a work environment and it attracts a great mix of people,” he said.

Spending a few hours at Cafe Dupont at the Dupont Circle Hotel in the District helps Tara Chantal Silver, founder of public relations firm SilverStrategy, get her creative juices flowing. She often splits her time between the lounge and her home office nearby.

Silver even keeps a list of lounges and coffee shops that suit her various business needs: Cafe Dupont for meetings, Soho Cafe & Market for writing and Tryst for research.

“When you’re working round the clock, you got to shake things up a little,” she said. “Until I feel there is a need to get an office, which I’m considering, I’m doing pretty well with the way things are now.”

For some entrepreneurs, access to fast, reliable Internet is challenging, as there are still areas without affordable broadband service. Gregg Edwards, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for Mount Pleasant, conducted a study of 80 businesses in the area and learned that many didn’t have the bandwidth to execute tasks such as video conferences.

About a year ago, he approached the D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer, which, along with the Office of Planning, is considering a pilot program to deliver wireless broadband to small businesses in Mount Pleasant.

Though the process has been slow, Ayanna Smith, a spokeswoman for the technology agency, said plans are getting underway. The city, she noted, does provide nearly 300 WiFi hot spots in libraries, local government offices and public schools.

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