Free Wireless Shadyside
It’s just after 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, and although I usually update this blog while sitting in front of the home-office desk, or while propped up on my bed with the help of a half-dozen pillows, this morning I felt the need for a slight change of environment. So instead of a desk or a bed, I’m right now sitting at a small, round table inside a popular Pittsburgh coffee shop. The shop is located smack-dab in the middle of Walnut Street — the main thoroughfare of a neighborhood known as Shadyside, which along with being an upscale residential area is also one of Pittsburgh’s busiest shopping districts.
Here’s a question for you: Does this cafe sound at all like the sort of place you occasionally end up in yourself? (Trendy cafe in trendy neighborhood; young and attractive staff.) If so, you’d probably make the assumption that I’m able to access the Internet and maintain my blog here because of the shop’s free Wi-Fi access. That’s certainly the assumption I made the first time I walked into the Coffee Tree Roasters, which is the name of the cafe I’m in now. After all, these days it almost seems as if every coffee shop in the western world provides free wireless access just as readily as it offers free stirring straws or packets of Sugar in the Raw. But this particular shop, regardless of its location, or its popularity, or even its apparent success, does not offer a complimentary wireless service at all.
Aside from making an educated guess about the frugality of the Coffee Tree Roasters’ ownership, I really have no idea why this is. And regardless of the country’s usually incorrect perceptions of the city of Pittsburgh, this is actually a very wired town. But except for the fact that pointing a finger at poor examples of customer service happens to be something of a hobby of mine, that’s completely beside the point. The point is that although one of my favorite local cafes — the one I’m in now — has no wireless access, I’m able to get online at no charge regardless. And no, I’m not a hacker, and I’m not hopping onto a nearby neighbor’s account. I’m instead using a rather unusual service known as Free Wireless Shadyside.
FWS is the latest project of a local small business owner by the name of Jonathan Plesset, and the truth is that it’s really nothing more than a powerful and neighborhood-wide wireless network that allows anyone in the immediate area to surf online for free. What makes it unusual is the fact that Plesset had the connection installed as a tribute to his late father, R. Jeffrey Plesset, who passed away in 1999.
The elder Plesset was the owner of a local business known as the Shadyside Inn, a place where average hotel suites are sometimes rented on a long-term basis to out-of-town celebrities, or to actors who happen to be in Pittsburgh for a film shoot. (Paul Newman and astronaut Buzz Aldrin have both been guests.) The Shadyside Inn still exists today — you’ll find it at 5405 Fifth Avenue, which is just steps from Walnut Street, where I’m sitting now.
According to his son, R. Jeffrey Plesset was a fairly serious neighborhood booster. This is how the younger Plesset explained his unusual tribute to his father in the July 11, 2007 issue of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
“My father was very into giving back to the community, so this seemed like a more fitting memorial than a fountain or a plaque … I’m a very strong believer that the Internet should be free. It’s the collective knowledge of the entire world — why should someone who can’t afford it not have access to it?”
And in the July 18, 2007 issue of Pop City, an online magazine covering general Pittsburgh news, the younger Plesset, who today is a co-owner of the Shadyside Inn, is quoted saying this:
“My dad didn’t like to draw attention to himself … With this wireless network you get a splash screen and a little description that honors him. Maybe he wouldn’t have liked that either, but he would have overlooked it. Plus, I wanted to give people another reason to come to Shadyside.”
Smart idea, no? A tribute that actually teaches for free — and that freely gives itself to others — hundreds of times each day. Maybe even thousands. Now that is a true example of innovative thinking. It’s also an example of a true and honest altruistic action, and a move that creative entrepreneurs everywhere would be wise to think about emulating. Bravo, Plessets.