No Strings Attached: Downtown Princeton Quietly Becoming an Internet Hotspot

Matthew Hersh

A casual look at any one of downtown's popular gathering spots will tell you that either more and more people are finding more time to spend out of the office, or, more and more people are finding that they can find work effectively out of the office.

Or, in the safest assumption: Princeton has entered the Wireless Age.

It's not heavily advertised, but some of Princeton's hubs are WiFi accessible and even encourage customers to hang out and enjoy the services they have to offer. Whether it's free, as it is at the Princeton Public Library, Panera, Saladworks, Triumph Brewing Co., or for a fee, as it is at Starbucks, you can find a signal downtown, keeping you in constant touch with the outside world.

"It's clearly a draw," said Jamie Hermann, who heads up technology training at the Library. "Sometimes when I walk around, I can see 10 to 15 people easily, on any given afternoon, on their laptops."

Wireless activity at the Library does not have to be completely hush-hush, however. The private rooms can be reserved for study groups to get together and work online on a project. "They have quiet, they have access, and no one's going to bother them," Ms. Hermann said, adding that in the warmer weather, patrons have been spotted surfing online on the third-floor patio. "We want the entire building to be accessible — that every square inch of the building reaches someone's computer," she said.

Anthony Scaturro, the Princeton University technology security officer who oversaw the Library's wireless installation, said that there are fewer and fewer buildings going up these days that are not equipped with some sort of wireless capability.

Mr. Scaturro added that including wireless at the Library was not only sensible, but almost essential when compared to the recent wireless boom over the last two years.

"Even small libraries that are late in getting connected, are getting up to date," the Library's Ms. Hermann said, adding that the -"number one" question she gets is how to connect to the Internet via a personal computer.

"It does save on our resources as well," she added. "Even though we have 100 computers for public access, there have been times when we have been at capacity. And if we didn't have wireless for people coming in on their laptops, we'd really have a hard time meeting the computer demand of this community."

While it's not quite the same for the town's eating establishments, many area enterprises not only feel providing wireless is a good service, but that it is essential to business to enter the modern computing age.

Triumph Brewing Company's Eric Nutt maintained that while it's nice to have something extra for the customers, shunning would-be business lunches and room-bookings for online presentations should not be the aim for any business. Triumph offers the aptly named "Sky Suite," perched high on the second level of the restaurant's Princeton location (they have a restaurant in New Hope, and are looking to open two spots in Philadelphia, as well). The room, which contains state-of-the-art A/V equipment, including an overhead projector and 100-inch, wall-mounted screen, is geared toward holding daytime seminars and training, and needs the wireless component to attract clientele.

"We're approaching a time where, city by city, things are going wireless," he said, adding that the original wireless vision was conjured up by a previous owner, Adam Fitting. "He decided years ago that he wanted this place to be wireless, and thought that it would be a draw," Mr. Nutt said. "To offer people a few pints and wireless access would present a really cool vibe.

"It's really been working well," he said. "I'm seeing that things are growing computer by computer downstairs."

Obviously, for any of this to work, you have to have a WiFi card installed on your computer, but once that's secured, it's not difficult. Depending on where you are, some services require password access that can be supplied by an employee, and some simply offer instant connections.

Barry Weisfeld, president and owner of the Princeton Record Exchange, said he uses Panera as a sort of office away from the office. "It's a nice, relaxing atmosphere," he said Tuesday morning over his coffee and laptop. At the Record Exchange, he said, he has a "really small office, but here, I can really focus on what's going on."

Tucked away in a booth at the restaurant, Mr. Weisfeld said the wireless access is a draw for anyone with a computer. "Sometimes this is just more convenient."

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