Seattle’s City Council has passed an emergency measure to ban free Wi-Fi access within city limits, following testimony from experts and fire officials regarding their investigation of last week’s explosion at the popular “Beans, Beans, The Magical Fruit” coffeehouse. The measure takes effect immediately; individuals or businesses found to be operating unregulated Wi-Fi access will be subject to misdemeanor charges, confiscation of Wi-Fi equipment, and fines of up to $5,000. Seattle will also create a Wi-Fi Testing Foundation (WTF) to assess and regulate Wi-Fi access within city limits. The WTF will consider a proposal in which users of Wi-Fi would be required by law to limit their use in coffeehouses to email and text-only Web sites (or Web browsing which images turned off).
Lead fire investigator Cindy Aerie noted that while the official investigation was not yet complete, all evidence indicated the explosion was caused by the owners’ re-locating one of the establishment’s two high-capacity espresso machines to make room for more seating. The machine’s new location was at the center of an invisible “Wi-Fi hotzone” within the building, where transmission traffic from wireless Internet users and hardware both inside the coffeehouse and from nearby homes and businesses focussed and excited water molecules in the air and within the coffee machine’s boiler.
“Apparently there was no way the owners could have known the danger of the situation,” said Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.
According to Aerie, “It was as if the owners placed the coffee machine inside a low-power microwave oven for several hours.” Investigators believe that after hours of normal use combined with exposure to the Wi-Fi radiation, the coffee machine’s water tank exploded from unexpected internal steam pressure.
Flying debris from the explosion injured five Internet users in the coffee shop. The injured patrons were all believed to be “bloggers,” although Washington state privacy laws prohibit publication of their names. All were taken to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center for treatment; four have been released while one remains hospitalized in satisfactory condition.
Fire officials expect to issue an official finding on Monday.
City councils in Tacoma, Everett, Renton, and the tech-heavy communities of Kirkland, Bellevue, and Redmond east of Seattle are expected to take up similar measures to ban free Wi-Fi service this week.
“We must consider public safety,” said Bellevue councilman Don Davidson.
However, opponents argue the economic impact of banning free Wi-Fi might be substantial in an area still struggling to emerge from recent economic doldrums. “Banning free Wi-Fi may substantially decrease productivity among contractors, off-site workers, and the employees of many area enterprises,” noted Ijay Kae, a supervisor for NuttinButNet, an Kirkland technology firm. “We may find we have to outsource jobs to areas which still offer unregulated Wi-Fi. Perhaps even overseas.”
The online community, however, seems to be taking the new regulation in stride. According to a blogger going by the online name Tribble: “It’s not like we have time to read all the material in blogs anyway. It’s a win-win: now we have less to read and more to complain about.”