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AT&T adds Wi-Fi hot zone to relieve Times Square congestion

New York, San Francisco have been identified as AT&T problem zones

May 25, 2010 02:41 PM ET

Computerworld - Months after AT&T Inc. acknowledged that its wireless customers, including iPhone users, experience excessive congestion in Manhattan, the carrier today announced the launch of a pilot Wi-Fi hot zone in bustling Times Square.

The hot zone, installed in the north central part of Times Square near 7th Avenue between 45th and 47th Streets, will allow AT&T customers to get Wi-Fi access with any qualifying smartphone, 3G LaptopConnect card or AT&T High Speed Internet plan, the company said in a statement. AT&T has 32 million customers in the U.S. with eligible smartphones or network plans.

The pilot project could be expanded to other areas of the country with consistently high 3G cellular phone and mobile data usage, AT&T said. In addition to Manhattan, AT&T has indicated that there are congestion problems in San Francisco's financial district.

The timing of AT&T's introduction of the Times Square hot zone is notable, given the likelihood that Apple Inc. will announce a fourth-generation iPhone on June 7. Users of iPhones have been the most vocal critics of AT&T wireless service since the first iPhone was introduced exclusively on AT&T's network three years ago.

One analyst, Kevin Burden at ABI Research, said that although iPhone users and Apple have been prodding AT&T to improve its 3G cellular coverage, he doubted that the next-generation iPhone announcement coming in June is specifically a trigger for the launch of the Times Square Wi-Fi pilot.

"I don't imagine AT&T is thinking 'With the iPhone 4G coming out, it's good we don't suck as much in New York or San Francisco,'" Burden said. "What's most important to AT&T is nationwide 3G coverage, and those two cities are only two cities in a very large country with many major cities. Dead zones are a problem for all the carriers."

Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates LLC, said the Times Square Wi-Fi pilot "is just a drop in the bucket" when it comes to addressing all of the congestion problems AT&T has to deal with. He said the pilot would be impressive if AT&T were allowing all users on 3G cellular to be automatically switched over to Wi-Fi.

AT&T has repeatedly acknowledged the drain on network resources from new smartphones, including the iPhone, and has launched a variety of network expansions to try to meet current and future demand.

"With this pilot AT&T Wi-Fi hot zone, we're examining new ways to combine our Wi-Fi and 3G networks to help ensure that AT&T customers in Times Square always have a fast mobile broadband connection to do what matters most to them," said John Donovan, AT&T's chief technology officer.

Manhattan and downtown San Francisco have been repeatedly identified as particularly congested for AT&T users, and today's announcement of the Wi-Fi hot zone in Times Square comes only 15 days after AT&T bragged about improved cellular service in New York City, citing third-party test results by Global Wireless Solutions Inc.

Some analysts, including IDC's Scott Ellison, noted the problems in New York and San Francisco as early as last October, when Ellison said, "AT&T has immolated itself with network capacity issues."

AT&T Mobile CEO Ralph de la Vega last December said a new 850 MHz channel helped AT&T "turn the corner" with congestion in Manhattan and promised "gradual improvements" there. "You'll see this is going to be fixed. We'll do a lot better," he said at the time. He also identified problems with cell tower antennas in the financial district of San Francisco.

An AT&T spokesman said in early May that San Francisco upgrades were still underway and "not quite where we want to be yet."

AT&T said it has seen 5,000% growth in mobile data traffic over the past three years. Wi-Fi in Times Square and elsewhere could be especially helpful with the congestion problems, given that Wi-Fi is popular on mobile phones, AT&T said. In the first quarter of 2010, AT&T handled 53 million Wi-Fi connections on its network -- that's nearly five times as many as it handled in the first quarter of 2009.

Also in the first quarter, nearly 70% of Wi-Fi connections came from smartphones and related "integrated" devices, up from 35% in the first quarter of 2009.

AT&T also has a major commitment to Wi-Fi to supplement 3G cellular, with 20,000 Wi-Fi hot spots in airports, hotels and coffee shops.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smart phones and other handhelds and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter Twitter@matthamblen, send e-mail to mhamblen@computerworld.com, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed Hamblen RSS.

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