Free Wi-Fi trickling down to iPhones

ATHENS, GREECE -- I told you Thursday in this space that Apple iPhone users discovered free Wi-Fi access at Starbucks and other AT&T hotspots. Yesterday, Computerworld.com confirmed that the free access had been shut down. Neither AT&T nor Apple will comment. What's going on?

What's happening, I believe, is that (as I wrote here, here and here) Wi-Fi is getting freer and freer, and the companies that provide access will milk the inexorable trend for everything its worth until Wi-Fi is totally free everywhere.

All the excitement about the discovery of an iPhone-specific free logon screen that worked, then didn't work, is just so much Apple-centric overreaction to something pretty standard, expected and, it turns out, publicly announced -- sort of. Clearly AT&T is planning free Wi-Fi for its iPhone-carrying customers. The log-in screen probably existed for testing purposes, but hyperactive iPhone users discovered, then quickly disseminated information about, its existence. So AT&T shut it down. It'll be back, and officially.

When I posted news of the free access discovery, plus speculation that AT&T was playing favorites with its iPhone customers, a smattering of iPhone fanboys posted comments neatly summarized by one poster with the dubious handle "Constable Odo":

"What a bunch of whiners. If you want free access, all you have to do is buy an iPhone."

It turns out, however, that many existing AT&T customers were quietly but publicly and officially given free Wi-Fi access at Starbucks locations back in April, and iPhone users were not among them.

According to an AT&T press release:

"As of May 1, qualifying AT&T customers can connect to the Internet from Wi-Fi enabled company-operated Starbucks locations nationwide by simply selecting "ATTWiFi" after powering up their computers. Free AT&T Wi-Fi service is currently offered with AT&T's three higher-speed residential broadband packages, all small business broadband packages and with all AT&T U-verseSM offerings with high speed Internet service."

And what about wireless customers, including iPhone users? The press release continued:

"For other customers, AT&T Wi-Fi service will reach company-operated Starbucks locations on a market-by-market basis throughout the year. The experience will include a mix of free and paid connection options for both frequent and occasional Wi-Fi users and qualifying Starbucks customers. Once AT&T Wi-Fi service is available, customers will be able to shop and surf both Starbucks' and AT&T's respective home pages for products and services."

Most major mobile broadband services these days build iPhone-specific login pages and other device-specific online applications for iPhone users. I think that iPhone enthusiasts simply stumbled upon the iPhone login page for the coming free AT&T Wi-Fi.

The carrier will probably let Steve Jobs announce the service, an announcement that could come next month.

Meanwhile, other AT&T customers, including BlackBerry users, are likely to get free AT&T Wi-Fi, too. (That is, free Wi-Fi as long as you pay extra for a more expensive plan.)

Meanwhile, the uber-trend is that Wi-Fi continues to get freer and freer.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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