AT&T sees soaring use of Wi-Fi -- just in time for an Apple tablet

Wi-Fi use quadrupled in 2009, mostly via smartphones, carrier says

The number of Wi-Fi connections made at AT&T Inc.'s 20,000 hot spots more than quadrupled last year, hitting 85.5 million, and most of those connections were via smartphones, the carrier said late Monday.

AT&T issues quarterly reports about the growth in usage of its Wi-Fi hot spots, drawing attention to the importance of Wi-Fi service at restaurants and retail establishments like McDonald's, Starbucks or Barnes and Noble. For many users, such convenient locations serve as the entry point into the carrier's extended network, which includes 3G service that has sometimes been criticized by iPhone users as being deficient.

Released today -- the day before Apple Inc.'s highly expected launch of a presumed tablet computer -- AT&T's latest Wi-Fi update highlights the importance of fast Wi-Fi connections that can be used to support bandwidth-hungry video streaming and other multimedia apps, which are expected to be features of the coming Apple device.

AT&T said its release of the Wi-Fi data was not timed to coincide with any announcement from Apple, since the carrier releases its Wi-Fi statistics quarterly.

While AT&T has a smaller 3G coverage footprint than Verizon Wireless, some analysts have questioned whether any wireless carrier's 3G connection could support streaming video on a device with a large display, like Apple's expected tablet.

But a connection via a Wi-Fi hot spot in a fast-food restaurant, on a college campus or in an office building could provide a fat pipe to the outside world and deliver enough network throughput to support some of the more bandwidth-hungry applications, analysts said.

Within Wi-Fi hot spots, speeds as high as 10Mbit/sec. to 100Mbit/sec. are possible using the 802.11n standard at the higher end. In comparison, a recent study by wireless industry research firm Root Wireless Inc. found that the average capacity of AT&T's 3G service ranged from 246Kbit/sec. in New York to 428Kbit/sec. in Dallas, meaning that a Wi-Fi connection would be many times faster.

If a hot spot is supported by a robust backhaul connection to the nearest switching station, either wired or wireless, and if that connection's throughput is up to the level of the hot spot, an Apple tablet user would, presumably, be golden.

AT&T is not commenting on whether it will support the expected Apple tablet. Regarding its Wi-Fi report, AT&T said it now has 20,000 hot spots nationwide, making it the largest hot spot provider in the U.S. It offers a map of locations on its Web site. An AT&T spokeswoman also said that the carrier simply released its quarterly Wi-Fi report today; it is not indicating that it would support any product Apple might announce.

Verizon Wireless, with the largest customer base in the country, also actively supports Wi-Fi hot spots. Last July, Verizon announced that its residential broadband customers on certain plans could use 30,000 Boingo Wireless hot spots for free.

AT&T noted in its report that its Wi-Fi network is a "complement" to its wired broadband and 3G wireless networks. In fact, about 27 million AT&T customers on wired broadband, smartphone and 3G LaptopConnect accounts can use the Wi-Fi hot spots at no additional cost, the company said. Some of the AT&T hot spot locations are being converted so that they will be available free of charge to all users; those locations include 11,000 McDonald's restaurants that recently dropped the $2.95 fee they once charged for two hours of wireless use.

Smartphones, and what AT&T calls "integrated devices," accounted for 61% of total Wi-Fi connections in 2009, and 72% of the Wi-Fi connections in the fourth quarter. Angie Wiskocil, AT&T's senior vice president of Wi-Fi services, said the carrier is planning to accelerate Wi-Fi growth in 2010 and beyond.

In a recent AT&T survey of the carrier's Wi-Fi users, 43% of the respondents said that they had accessed an AT&T hot spot four or more times in the previous 30 days.

"Hot spot usage is skyrocketing," said In-Stat analyst Frank Dickson in a statement. He predicted that the number of hot spot venues will increase, as will the number of Wi-Fi-capable devices.

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

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon