A Dark, Dark Day

There has been an unsettling trend descending upon Beijing lately. I’m not talking about the smog (actually it’s been quite beautiful in Beijing over the last couple of weeks). I’m talking about the trend of eliminating the free WiFi at Starbucks.

One of the most frustrating things that we dealt with on our trips to Singapore and Hong Kong this summer was the unavailability of wireless internet access. For travelers in this day in age, wireless internet access is almost a necessity. If I don’t have internet, how will I post pictures on Facebook so my friends can be jealous? More seriously, in both Singapore and Hong Kong, I could turn on my phone and there would be five to ten wireless networks in range, but they were all tied to a local phone company and you needed a local SIM card in order to gain access.

One of the things I really like about Beijing is that most of the cafes have their own wireless router and network. All you need to do is get the password from the staff and log on. Unfortunately, I have observed the beginning of the end.

Starbucks has begun to offer “Free WiFi, brought to you by China Mobile,” which means that now all you have to do to log on is enter in your mobile phone number, type in a CAPTCHA, and in about 2 minutes you will receive your log-in code which you then enter in to get 30 minutes of “free” internet (I put free in quotes because it still costs me hassle and time).

Not all locations have implemented China Mobile WiFi yet, but it seems to be happening at more and more Starbucks around town. It looks like l may be forced to settle for even worse coffee (I know, amazing–worse than Starbucks) at Chinese coffee shops that still offer WiFi.

Speaking of other coffee shops, it looks like Costa Coffee is making a strong bid to be the number two coffee shop in Beijing. They have been opening up branches all over the place. I thought it was very funny that in Shunyi (out near the airport) the new Costa Coffee opened right as Starbucks got rid of it’s free-and-easy internet. It was almost as if the ‘bucks was saying, “Hey, go try out that new competitor down the street ’cause we don’t really like you that much.”

And speaking of Costa Coffee, the jury is still out on their coffee quality. I had a really good cappuccino at the DongZhiMen location but terrible espresso at the Solana store. Costa has made an interesting choice of putting their espresso bar perpendicular to the cash register so that people at the counter can see exactly what the barista is doing when making the drinks. It’s like the open kitchen concept that some restaurants employ. The problem is that people that know a little about making coffee can see when you’re doing it all wrong. I watched the baristas fill the portafilter with pre-ground coffee (it should be ground immediately before pulling shots) and pull my two espresso shots for a full 45 seconds (it should be 18-23 seconds). I could go on a much bigger coffee rant, but I’ll save that for another post.

If you’ve had any other really good, or really bad coffee experiences in Beijing I’d love to hear about them.

  • Tanya October 4, 2010, 11:18 PM

    I found the wireless fairly easy to use, but I was on a PC (I’m told that iphones and some other mac stuff can’t get on at all) and I was only planning to be there half an hour anyway. I’ve been to Costa a few times now and I really don’t like it as much as Starbucks. I think that’s mostly just a comfort thing though – I *know* Starbucks. The whole point of going there is that it’s “the same” – the comfort thing of it. I’m not sure I WANT to get to know a new cafe chain :P

  • Sol October 5, 2010, 4:20 AM

    Matt, aren’t you a barista yourself? Don’t you make your own coffee?

  • Matt October 5, 2010, 10:43 AM

    Sol, yeah I am a barista. We have an espresso machine at our house, but we still end up going out for coffee (probably more than we should).

  • Johannes October 5, 2010, 12:49 PM

    Well, I just wanted to say that my best coffee experiences were at this couples place, äh at Wangjing Fanzhouyuan there is a nice place and as far as I know they still have free wireless, just have to ask.. So when you at any point should end up there you should check them out and maybe they will open a shop at some point.. :]

  • Sol October 5, 2010, 2:03 PM

    coffee is quite a drink in Australia; whether it’s at the local Gloria Jeans franchise store, a coffee shop at a train station, or at the Sydney Hilton Hotel. 3-5 dollars a cup depending on the size and the brand. In China, coffees are so expensive, it’s a luxury.

  • Sol October 5, 2010, 2:04 PM

    oops, meant coffee is quite a cheap drink in Australia.

  • Billy October 6, 2010, 1:04 PM

    One word: Nescafe 1+2 Instant Coffee. Ok that’s more like 3 words, 2 numbers, and a binary operator, but you get the point.

    I always viewed Starbucks as having 15 kuai free wifi, because I could never just go in and start using the wifi without buying something first. Then I found out they had 13 kuai muffins so the wifi became cheaper.

    Very sad to see the free wifi gone.

  • Matt October 7, 2010, 1:19 PM

    Billy you’re killing me. Nescafe?
    I do understand that not everyone likes coffee, but don’t confuse Nescafe as being coffee.

  • Sol October 7, 2010, 7:23 PM

    Matt, if you want, I know what I’m taking with me to Beijing this December from Australia: roasted coffee beans.

  • Nick October 9, 2010, 1:02 AM

    Sol – at the current exchange rate, you can have a starbucks cappuccino for AU$5 in Beijing.

    Billy – I will never, ever be that desperate.

  • Chris October 18, 2010, 11:45 PM

    Recently noticed that China Mobile’s Wifi at a growing number of Beijing Starbucks doesn’t work with Macs. Or, rather: If you use a Mac to access to the free Wifi, you’ll feel the wrath of China Mobile. (You can login, but you get timed out after just a few minutes.)

    I don’t understand all the details yet, but apparently, this brutal new reality has to do with the fact that Apple partnered with China Unicom and not China Mobile on iPhone service.

    The idea of a Starbucks not allowing Mac-owning customers to access “PC-only Free Wifi” is funny.

    Not funny while I was experiencing it, of course. But very funny a few minutes later, the idea of a bunch of happy PC users with shit-eating grins as Mac users sit there immobilized, shunned, disenfranchised.

    I personally like Starbucks because it’s smoke-free.

    Now, it’s going to be Mac-free too.

  • Bonnie October 26, 2010, 4:32 PM

    Hi There,
    Thanks for the good news. I am heading to Beijing tonight! As an FYI, if you ever make it back to Hong Kong all of there public gardens/parks offer free wifii :)


  • Jingbo November 23, 2010, 2:47 PM

    The Village Starbucks “wifi requires a phone number” thing really put me off. I’ll gladly go to whichever coffee shop has easy free wifi even if the coffee is not that great.

    Note to Coffee Shops:
    Free (i.e. really free) wifi + decent coffee + decent environment = you get lots of my kuai.

  • Tanya February 15, 2011, 3:23 PM

    Just a note – the Starbucks China-mobile-wireless is still in place although all locations I’ve tried now give 3-4 hours of free time (instead of 30 minutes). If you accidentally close the log-in screen or have a computer problem or just forget and close and then need to use the internet again, the username and password remain the same (so you don’t have to go through the whole process again, just enter the details you were assigned through text message earlier). Costa’s wifi is a LOT less hassle, though!

  • Kara February 16, 2011, 9:55 AM

    Tanya, I’ve noticed this as well. I’m really thankful that they’ve improved what initially was a very poor system. Now it’s just poor. Ha. Also, the CMCC Wifi at Starbucks now works with iPhones, so that is a true improvement. As a friend pointed out, though: the wifi is still useless if, for instance, your phone was accidentally cancelled by China Mobile while you were out of the country.

    Personally, I’ve been staying home for the wifi and frequenting Fish Eye Cafe for the coffee and environment. Silly Starbucks…

  • Tristan July 20, 2011, 8:27 PM

    Starbucks has the worst coffee of all the chains, it’s continued success is an absolute mystery to me. Costa coffee at least tastes of something, something overpriced, but nevertheless, something.

  • bob November 1, 2011, 11:44 PM

    i found the starbucks wifi offered by CMCC works on my phone. problem is you have to put in your telephone number to get the login password via SMS. the day after i used the wifi in starbucks i started getting spam text messages. massive spam messages. also notificiations of downloading some software stuff which i have no idea what it was. a lot of spam. i regret disclosing my phone number

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