AT&T offers free Wi-Fi to its LaptopConnect customers

Move is seen as a way to keep customers as competition mounts

AT&T Inc. announced today that its LaptopConnect customers, who pay $60 or more a month for wide-area wireless data connections, will also be able to access more than 17,000 AT&T Wi-Fi hot spots in the U.S. for free.

To outpace its wireless competitors, the carrier has long been provisioning faster 3G cellular services while also beefing up the number of Wi-Fi hot spots it offers on the theory that Wi-Fi can provide faster connection speeds inside of buildings or in remote locations. Both are shared networks, meaning that the number of users will affect the speed of the connection, although both types of systems are designed for multiple users at any given time.

While provisioning both Wi-Fi and 3G might seem contradictory to some, AT&T officials see offering both as a way to present a more complete package. "The combination of the nation's largest wireless and Wi-Fi networks is unbeatable," said Michael Woodward, vice president of business mobility product for AT&T wireless, in a statement.

Asked why AT&T is pursuing both Wi-Fi and 3G cellular at once, a spokeswoman responded, "We are all about giving customers maximum choice.... Customers can get great speeds on our 3G network, but if they are in one of our 17,000 Wi-Fi hot spots and want to hop on, we want to make it easy and free for them to do so."

Cellular signals, as in the case of AT&T's EDGE network and its 3G network over HSPA, are slowed by some materials, including metal, concrete and even some kinds of glass, making in-building Wi-Fi systems preferable at times. And in some rural and remote locations, cell service can be spotty. AT&T claims its 3G network is approximating DSL speeds in 275 markets in the U.S., a number expected to reach 350 markets by year's end. The older EDGE network is more widely available, in 13,000 cities and along 40,000 miles of major roadways.

Jeffrey Kagan, an independent analyst in Atlanta, said today's news is significant because it shows that the carrier is allowing customers to pick the network they want. AT&T benefits, because giving a customer more choice, especially for free, "tends to create stickier customers" which is more important as the market gets more competitive, he added.

Wayport Inc., which manages the AT&T Wi-Fi service in 7,000 Starbucks locations and has provisioned Wi-Fi at more than 9,000 McDonald's restaurants, has called AT&T's plan for both wide- and local-area wireless service a sound strategy. Dan Lowden, vice president of business development and marketing at Wayport, recently noted in an interview with Computerworld that, generally, a Wi-Fi connection is faster than a cellular connection. "AT&T seems to have nailed it on the head by supporting both [Wi-Fi and cellular]. Why not offer the best speeds and lowest-cost connection? No one technology will serve everybody," Lowden said.

Free Wi-Fi access at AT&T hot spots has been available to some AT&T broadband customers with wired connections, and the carrier said it plans to expand free Wi-Fi access to additional wireless customers. AT&T's Wi-Fi connection policies have also been important to Apple Inc. iPhone users.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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