index2018-09-06

~Why Wi-Fi~

Earlier this year I got rid of my ATT data plan and bought a dumb phone. The switch to a dumbphone hardly changed my day to day except that I no longer find myself scrolling and refreshing on a subway platform or on a sidewalk or at a dinner table. When I am not in transit or spending leisurly time somewhere in the city I am usually on my computer and connected to Wi-Fi.

My yellow Nokia 3310

This brings me to the point of this post: bringing Wi-Fi to the Park Slope Food Coop.

Photo of Park Slope Food Coop Newspaper - The Linewaiters' Gazette

I have been a member at the Coop since 2012. It is one of the oldest and largest food coops in the country. Every month each member is required to fulfill a 2hr 45min work shift. Before I continue I would like to say that I take no issue with the structure of the coop because it works! When it comes to quality and price it is by far one the best markets. However, I did recently learn that the Coop does not offer WiFi and it is seemingly not up for discussion.

I wrote a letter to the Coop’s newspaper regarding this issue:

Dear CoOp,

Why is there no WiFi? I believe that access to the internet is a right. A community space, budget allowing, should always offer free WiFi.

Why should there be WiFi? Not everyone has an unlimited data plan. Not everyone has access to WiFi at home. I wonder how many people are expected to answer to work emails and messages while working or shopping at the CoOp. It would be great to count on the CoOp, a space that we all put a lot of time and energy into, for access to WiFi. In turn WiFi will give members access to their extended community, their place of work, car sharing services like Car2Go, the list goes on! Most obviously members can freely access all kinds of information!

Internet service doesn’t have to come from the big dogs either! Community owned wifi, using mesh networking technology, is a possibility we should consider!

I went to the office to ask about the possibility of WiFi and I received a hard NO without explanation. I am writing here to see if anyone can offer an explanation. I would be really interested to know.

This letter is a question, not a demand. I am simply looking for more information and people who are also interested in bringing WiFi to the members of the CoOp.

The Coop promptly responded:

DEAR EMMA RAE,

You have raised an excellent topic regarding the possibility of free Wi-Fi at the Coop. The primary reason the Coop has not provided this is cost, which we estimate would be at least $30,000 for initial setup, and recurring annual expenses of at least $28,000. In our fiscal year 2018, our net income was $38,006. As your letter acknowledged, budgets may not always allow for provision of things like Wi-Fi, and we are very focused on low prices. With gross margins that are less than half of other large food coops, Park Slope Food Coop members save on groceries every time they shop. In addition, our recent IT spending and the time and attention of our paid IT staff has favored business-critical projects, such as updating our inventory system, as well as projects to meet sustained member requests, like providing additional web-based services to members. Check out our other new Member Services at foodcoop.com!

Two issues later another member responded:

TO THE EDITORS,

A further response to Emma Rae’s letter to the Gazette of 8/2/2018, seeking Wi-Fi at the Coop. General Coordinator Stephanie Lee has responded that Wi-Fi would be too costly for the Coop. In my opinion, even if cost were no object, Wi-Fi is not a good idea for us. Working members with data plans already spend excessive time staring at their phones when they should be. . .working. Shopping members using phones clog the aisles without regard for their surroundings. Can you imagine what it would be like if there were Wi-Fi? I, for one, don’t think the Coop should be expected to accommodate members who visit, not to shop, but to do personal and professional business unrelated to the Coop’s functions. Members whose employers expect them on call should have devices with data plans provided by said employers, and all the other miscellaneous tasks requiring Internet service can be done at the library. Because the Coop is a community but isn’t a community center.

Here is my most recent response:

Dear Editors and Members,

In response to the letter from the 8/30/18 issue: Yes, I agree. Many people are glued to their phones while shopping at the Coop. And yes, this can be frustrating. However, we cannot blame Internet access itself for members spending excessive time on their phones. We could blame the extra-large corporations which profit off the attention economy we all now live in. We could blame the 24-hour work-email cycle. We could even blame the food blogs that list ingredients you could only find at the Coop! It would be misguided to put the blame on access. 

To suggest that members who need to be available for work should get data plans from their employers is an unrealistic idea. Given the fast-paced, high-rent, and competitive city we live in it is hard to imagine a world where a 2 hour and 45 minute shift can be done without the anxiety of getting back to work - a reminder that this is a Coop that exists in 2018…not 1970.

It goes without saying that most everything we need has been transferred in some form onto the Internet. Work. Healthcare. Transportation. All of these things that many people depend on can often be accessed over a simple Wi-Fi connection. To ignore this reality is to ensure that the digital divide stays divided. What I’m reading in the last response to my letter is this: You have a data plan? You get to be at the Coop and use the Internet. No data plan? Tough luck. I take issue with this stance as it seems to ignore the fact that data plans come at a price. It is to put a fiscal responsibility on the members where there might otherwise be room for free and open access.

Concerning numbers: I am not sure where the estimate cost of $28,000 a year came from but I believe this number could be drastically reduced with the introduction of a mesh network. A mesh network is also known as a community network and is very similar in structure to a Coop. There are a bunch of wireless routers (members) which all simultaneously connect to each other (shifts) in order to cooperatively distribute data (food) between devices (food suppliers) and the Internet itself (the Coop community).

Finally, I would like to clarify that in my original letter I was by no means implying that members carry out personal or professional work on Coop time. What I was inquiring about was access. This could mean ability to get a ride share, quickly respond to a message, get directions to another location, download a recipe, the list goes on. This is not exclusively a work issue or a member issue, this is an accessibility issue. The Coop, being a community, should consider all options when it comes to Wi-Fi because why not?