Looking for a place to get work done with a cup of joe? While 4G LTE and 5G are both often faster, free coffee shop Wi-Fi remains critical for many remote workers because it works indoors, and it’s uncapped.
In 2019, small, elite coffee chain Joe & the Juice takes the crown for the fastest coffee chain Wi-Fi, while Dunkin’ Donuts beats Starbucks in terms of speed among big national chains.
Winners: The Fastest Free Coffee Shop Wi-Fi
All Coffee Chains: Joe & the Juice
What the heck is Joe & the Juice, you might ask? It’s a Danish chain with 200 global shops, which sort of combine a coffee shop-meets-Jamba Juice experience. It also has very good free Wi-Fi. Here in the US, our data shows the company’s shops in the Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Diego, San Francisco Bay, and Washington DC metro areas. Joe & the Juice locations beat out Dunkin’ Donuts with average download speeds of 42.4Mbps compared with 40.4Mbps. The fastest Joe & the Juice shops are all in New York City; every test we saw with speeds over 100Mbps is in Manhattan.
Big Coffee Chains: Dunkin’ Donuts
In this same test last year, Dunkin’ eked out a narrow win over Starbucks, but this year there is a massive gap in download speeds. As with Joe & the Juice, Dunkin’ Donuts’ fastest results are also regional. We saw speeds over 100Mbps primarily at shops in New England, New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia, not at Dunkin’s many other national locations. Unlike Joe & the Juice, chances are there’s a Dunkin’ in your neighborhood.
How We Test Coffee Shop Wi-Fi
To determine the fastest coffee shop, we used almost 100,000 Wi-Fi tests taken between August 1, 2018, and August 10, 2019, using the Ookla Speedtest app on Android devices and iPhones. (Note: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag.com’s parent company.) We verified that the tests were taken at coffee shops through a combination of the Wi-Fi SSIDs and the Foursquare business locations database. We only accepted chains with more than 100 tests for the year. In general, we were not able to survey non-chain coffee shops because they did not have enough tests or we could not identify their SSIDs.
The number of tests per chain varied sharply, as do the size of the chains. We saw 500 or fewer tests from Caffe Nero, Capital One Cafe, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Joe & the Juice, Krispy Kreme, Philz, and Tim Hortons. Caribou Coffee and Peet’s showed between 600 and 2,500 tests. We got 12,000 from Dunkin’ Donuts and more than 62,000 from Starbucks.
One thing we noticed: Coffee shop chains, these days, are highly regional. With Dunkin’ and Starbucks taken out of the map, different chains are clustered in different locations. On the map below, you can see how Peet’s is California-centric, while Caribou is focused in the upper Midwest, Krispy Kreme is primarily in the South, Tim Horton’s has a lot of locations in Ohio and Michigan, and Caffe Nero is primarily around Boston. (Some colors aren’t visible in some cities here because they overlap heavily.)
Even in the 5G Era, Coffee Shop Wi-Fi Matters
4G LTE just doesn’t have the capacity for massive laptop use, so 4G service plans tend to have restrictive limits on tethering. Millimeter-wave 5G like AT&T and Verizon are installing has the capacity, but it has serious trouble making it through windows and walls. (Coffee shops might use 5G connections on their roofs to power their Wi-Fi, though.)
5G devices are also very expensive right now, and won’t be widespread for several years. According to research firm IDC, 5G phones will still make up only 26 percent of worldwide sales by 2023. Nearly everything already has Wi-Fi, though.
So for the foreseeable future, Wi-Fi is going to be how we hook up our satellite offices.
Dunkin’ Beats Starbucks
When we spoke to Dunkin’ Donuts last year, we were told it was in the middle of a system upgrade. Consumers could tell if a store was upgraded by its Wi-Fi SSID: shops with “Dunkin Donuts Guest” were faster than the ones with just “Dunkin Guest.”
It looks like Dunkin’ has largely completed its upgrade. While tests last year were relatively evenly divided between the faster “Dunkin Donuts Guest” SSID and the slower “Dunkin Guest” network, this year we had more than 11,000 tests on the faster network and only 641 tests on the slower one.
“We have successfully transformed Dunkin’s in-store Wi-Fi network at all Dunkin’ U.S. locations to better serve our guests. This transformation includes replacing network hardware, adding dedicated wireless access points, as well as increased network bandwidth where available. We are proud to offer one of the fastest Wi-Fi networks in the restaurant industry to keep our guests running and connected,” Dunkin told us in a statement.
The results aren’t dependent on the ISP the store is using; tests run against “Dunkin Guest” SSID stores using Comcast Business and Spectrum as their ISPs were significantly slower than tests run on “Dunkin Donuts Guest” with the same ISPs.
Starbucks also has two main SSIDs, with a similar difference in speeds. We saw more than 57,000 tests on the faster “Google Starbucks” network, and about 5,000 on the slower “Starbucks WiFi.” But “Dunkin Guest” was faster than “Google Starbucks.” That said, Starbucks’ fastest speeds are better distributed across the nation, but harder to find in any one metro area. Abilene, Austin, Charleston, and Kansas City are all home to fast Starbucks locations.
Looking at our 2018 results against our 2019 results, you can see how Caribou Coffee and Dunkin’ appear to have had system upgrades, but Peet’s and Starbucks haven’t had any.
Joe & the Juice might have won just by not having any legacy equipment slowing it down, as it’s a relatively new chain. Joe just entered the US market in 2017; Dunkin’ locations have been offering free Wi-Fi for years longer than that. Like Dunkin’, Joe relies primarily on Comcast and Spectrum as its ISPs, but the tests we surveyed showed better results at the Joe stores.
As with last year, the different ways people use Dunkin’ and Starbucks Wi-Fi may also play a role in Dunkin’s win. Starbucks encourages people to sit around for hours with laptops; the Dunkin’ in my neighborhood has 20-minute maximum seating times.
So for a quick, highly caffeinated upload, Dunkin’ Donuts is your best bet. Joe & the Juice is a place to sit around for a while and work. Starbucks comes in second among coffee shops that encourage you to dawdle. And if you’re headed to The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or Philz…stick to the coffee.
Is Free Wi-Fi Safe?
Public Wi-Fi is incredibly convenient, but it’s not necessarily secure. You don’t know who else might be on the network with you, and if they’re attempting to view your activity. The business providing the Wi-Fi may also be spying on you, to see what its customers are shopping for and make its own business decisions accordingly.
The best idea is to use a VPN when you’re on public Wi-Fi. VPNs encrypt your data as it travels over the public network, preventing the Wi-Fi provider from understanding what you’re doing. There are a number of good free VPNs available, but they all have trade-offs. If you’re willing to pay a little for security, check out our highest-rated VPN services, on any platform.
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com on August 29, 2019.