I'm not sure why this is so. Perhaps, back at the dawn of wifi, the companies installing it here were charging outrageous sums to provide it in cafes, so it never took off.
Nowadays, of course, almost everyone is equipped with Internet-enabled smartphones or other online devices, so whatever pressure there was on cafes to provide wifi has eased.
As a result, I suspect we'll never see the prevalence of free wifi in Australia that you encounter in many other countries.
In some ways that's a blessing. Rather than being silent venues in which everyone is bent over a phone or laptop while eking out a caffe latte, cafes here tend to be lively places with a lot of conversation and bustle.
The best thing that travellers can do upon arrival in Oz, therefore, is to visit a local telco's shopfront and pick up an Australian SIM card or laptop data key with a generous data download allowance.
However, though it's not prevalent, free wifi does exist in Australia - you just have to know where to look.
Here's a random sample of free wifi locations I know of in the Melbourne city centre, specifically focusing on pleasant places at which you can sit down, order good food and drink, and go online in comfort (so not McDonald's).
These are all fairly close to where I live, so it's an unscientific survey, but here we go:
Thousand Pound Bend, 361 Little Lonsdale Street. A relaxed retro barn of a place, with inexpensive food and drink and an attached art gallery. It also screens cult movies occasionally. Open weekdays from 8am to late, weekends from 10am to late.
La La Land, 125 Hardware Street. The least likely place you'd expect to find free wifi, but the most comfortable. An sprawling upstairs bar with comfy sofas and a mellow atmosphere. Open 5pm-late Monday-Thursday, 4pm-late Friday, 7pm-late Saturday and Sunday.
Little Mule, 19 Somerset Place. Friendly little alley cafe which doubles as a bicycle shop (of course), open 7:30am-3pm Monday-Friday and 9:30am-3pm Saturday. To be honest, I'm not sure whether their wifi is available for customer use - they just kindly offered it to me one day when I was hanging out their doorway trying to get a decent signal on my phone. So if you order breakfast and ask politely, they may be able to help.
Moat, 176 Little Lonsdale Street. Beneath the Wheeler Centre and the State Library of Victoria, this cafe-bar picks up the free wifi provided by the library, though it can be a bit patchy in some corners. This is the classiest place on my list, which means it's also the most expensive; it serves tasty sharing plates and has a good wine list. Open 8am-late Monday-Friday, 3pm-late Saturday.
2Pocket, 277 Little Lonsdale Street. This is the most feelgood, ethical place at which to log in; the coffee doubles as a Fairtrade shop. The wifi password isn't handed out willy-nilly however, so ask politely if you'd like access. And buy something more than a single coffee (I recommend the Fairtrade Madagascar-made chocolate bars). Open 7.30am-5pm weekdays, 9.30am-4.30pm Saturday, 10am-2.30pm Sunday.
Workshop, 413 Elizabeth Street. This upstairs bar is a cool informal space which doubles as an art gallery featuring new artists' works; Narrelle and I surprised ourselves by buying a piece of art from here once, after a beer or two. It's open till late but the wifi is only switched on during daylight hours, generally from 10am-4pm Monday-Friday, and 1-4pm on weekends.
Honourable mentions: These options are not as comfy nor as atmospheric as the above, and their access is likely to be slow and congested, but you can also access free wifi within these public spaces:
- Melbourne Central shopping mall, 211 La Trobe Street (I recommend ordering a coffee at Plantation on Level 2, then sitting in their big comfy chairs);
- State Library of Victoria, 328 Swanston Street.
- Federation Square, corner Swanston and Flinders Streets;
- Flinders Street Station, corner Swanston and Flinders Streets;
- The Officeworks stationery store at 107 Elizabeth Street (and presumably the company's other city branches);
- For Victorians, there's also the City Library, 253 Flinders Lane (but you can only access the wifi after you've joined the library, which only residents of Victoria can do).
OK folks - clearly this is an incomplete sample. Please use the comments field below to add any more free wifi outlets you know of in Melbourne, preferably with location details and opening hours. Let's share!