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Cappuccino photo by Jazzbobrown, Creative Commons Attribution License

This week, The Modern Times Coffeehouse has become the first coffee shop in the District to throw down the gauntlet at Wi-Fi loafers: The management has covered up some of the electrical outlets in an attempt to herd its laptop loiterers toward communal tables, where they can still plug in.

This particular gambit was first seen after the economy took a nosedive in New York City and has since spread elsewhere as independent shops try to cope with hordes of wireless customers, including laid off workers with plenty of time but little disposable income. Washington, as usual, is fashionably late to join in. The Modern Times appears to be the first  in the District to take similar measures.

But, not all local café owners see this as a good option. At Tynan Coffee and Tea, a Columbia Heights joint that opened in October, special care was taken to ensure the electrical outlets were close to the tables and plentiful enough to satisfy demand from laptop owners, according to Jim Sullivan, who owns the place with his brother Brian.

Now that McDonald’s franchises offer free Wi-Fi, Starbucks no longer charges its customers to get online, and even bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble double as hotspots, independent coffeehouses are in no position to forgo the complimentary hookups.

“It’s a balance,” says Dan Silverman, A.K.A. the Prince of Petworth, whose site has played host to the online furor over changes in the Wi-Fi policies at Tynan and Sticky Fingers Bakery. “They are not running Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Donuts. They want to foster an independent feeling and not just cycle people in and out.”

Beyond questions of profitability, many café owners find themselves caught between their wired and unwired customers.

Moderating the growing strife has proved more complicated than the Sullivan brothers had imagined. Last month, the shop cut back on the Internet service and turned it off altogether during some weekend hours, after a flurry of complaints from the sans-computer crowd.

“We got a fair amount of feedback from people in the neighborhood, saying: ‘Love your place but I couldn’t find a seat,” Sullivan says. But the changes fueled new controversy from the digital nomads in the neighborhood.

At The Modern Times, the debate has taken on a generational dimension.

“It’s a shame that some folks feel that they are being pushed out by a new technology – one, that, honestly, I’m still coming to terms with myself. I understand that this sentiment is partly derived from a slight fear of the new and perhaps a manifestation of an increasing generational gap, but, nonetheless, it is a valid concern that creates conflict, worry, much argument and division,” Javier, one of the café’s operators, wrote on its blog earlier this month.

Informal readers’ poll: Should more café’s pull the plug on unlimited Internet usage?