Verizon offers free Wi-Fi to consumer customers

Expands on Boingo relationship offering free Wi-Fi to business users

Free Wi-Fi hotspots in the U.S. are now available to nine million Verizon residential broadband customers using many of the carrier's more expensive DSL or FiOS internet services plans, Verizon announced today.

The expanded Wi-Fi service relies on Boingo Wireless access points located in 30,000 locations, including airports, hotels and coffee shops in the U.S. Not all 30,000 U.S. locations will be available, a Verizon spokesman said. He declined to elaborate on how many of the hotspots would be available, except to say the number is in the "thousands."

Ironically, some Verizon customers could be using AT&T hot spots for their free access. That's because Boingo's network is an aggregation of 120,000 hot spots offered by 160 carriers around the world. AT&T has about 7,500 hotspots in the U.S. in the Boingo group, said Christian Gunning, marketing director at Boingo.

Verizon for the last six years has provided free Wi-Fi access to Verizon business customers over Boingo, and has decided to extend the Boingo contract for another four years and expand the service to residential customers.

Existing Verizon broadband customers with 20Mbit/sec FiOS plans or 3Mbit/sec or 7Mbit/sec DSL plans will have free access at the Boingo hot spots. Only netbooks or laptops will have access for now, said Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe. Support for smartphones is expected at a future date.

Some analysts have speculated that Verizon is seeking the right to sell the Apple iPhone, which is sold exclusively in the U.S. by AT&T and works over AT&T hotspots. When asked whether the Verizon hot spot news could be linked to future iPhone plans, Rabe laughed and said, "I'm not talking about smartphones."

The decision to support free Wi-Fi for consumers comes late for Verizon, Boingo's Gunning argued. AT&T's move to offer free Wi-Fi followed its purchase of Wayport Inc. last year.

AT&T sees Wi-Fi as a way of supplementing its cellular network services, something Verizon has been slow to accept, Gunning said.

"Verizon is one of the last telecom companies in the world to publicly embrace Wi-Fi and has not been really receptive to Wi-Fi in the last few years," Gunning said. He noted that carriers in Europe were aware that cellular networks could not always support user demand, and used that as a reason to include Wi-Fi. "Verizon has had an 'A-ha!' moment and decided that Wi-Fi needed to be a part of its major product offers."

But Rabe doesn't feel Verizon is late. "We're in touch with customer demand," he said.

Rather than competing with AT&T, Gunning said Verizon is likely feeling the pressure from cable companies offering free Wi-Fi. He cited a blog from Verizon today describing the company's free Wi-Fi as superior to what cable companies offer.

"Some cable companies have begun to offer WiFi in certain regions of the country as a way to compete," the blog from Verizon says. "The Verizon Wi-Fi service is national, as well as regional, since customers don't just travel only within their home region, just as they don't access the Internet only while at home."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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