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INTERNET, WITH ALL THE PERKS

Back when it was still fresh in everyone's imagination, the Web spawned more than its share of novelties. Remember Internet cafés, where customers would pay a per-minute charge to check e-mail, surf the Web and enjoy a $3 cup of java? Now these once-hip hangouts have all but vanished from the urban landscape.

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But a few believers remain. One of them is Jon Ackerman, owner of Chicago's Off the Wall Wireless Café.

Calling Ackerman a survivor of the Internet café implosion wouldn't be entirely true. Off the Wall came late to the game, opening in September 2000. Using a single DSL link hubbed out to eight computers, Ackerman charges 15¢ per minute for use of a computer. Ackerman said the demographics of Off the Wall's neighborhood support the business. Located in the trendy Bucktown/Wicker Park area, the café is just a few doors down from where MTV filmed its latest installment of “The Real World.” The area is a mix of working class families, Yuppies and twentysomethings.

That final group is the target market for the café. “You have people coming straight out of college who have student loans to pay off, and they can't afford a computer,” he said. “They're looking for jobs, they need e-mail and they have nowhere else to go.”

Ackerman's original plan was to start a wireless dealership in the space Off the Wall now occupies, and, in fact, he sells mobile phones in a corner of the shop as a dealer for AT&T Wireless, Nextel and VoiceStream. About 60% of his revenue comes from that side of the business.

But the culture of the place is clearly defined by the coffeehouse side of things. Web surfing, usually a solitary activity, has taken a more social bent at Off the Wall, Ackerman said.

“You see a lot of people interacting who are at the computers,” he said. “They'll sit down, talk to our employees — next thing you know, three or four people who came in separately are all in the same conversation.”

It certainly helps the long-term prognosis of Off the Wall that the atmosphere is social, and not one in which people cocoon in front of a computer screen. Eventually, Ackerman acknowledged, enough people will have broadband in their own homes to make a simple high-speed offering less of a hook to potential customers.

As that happens, he said, new technologies will be installed in the café. Ackerman is already planning on adding a Wi-Fi access point. Prices for Web surfing will also go down, and the more traditional aspects of a coffeehouse will be played up: “Maybe not this summer, but next summer for sure, I'll have a deck opened up.”

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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