Laptop users subscribing to AT&T's 3G wireless data service can now get free Wi-Fi too at any of the company's 17,000 Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the country.
AT&T announced the new perk Tuesday for Laptop Connect customers who pay $60 or more a month for the company's cellular data service that operates on its HSDPA and EDGE networks.
The wireless market is heating up as carriers try to out-do one another. Last week, an AT&T executive said at an investor conference that the company is upgrading its HSDPA network to provide even faster network speeds to its data users. Today users who connect to AT&T's 3G network can expect to get download speeds between 400Kbps to 700Kbps. And once the software upgrade is complete using a newer version of the technology, those speeds could eventually be boosted to between 4Mbps and 6.6Mbps.
AT&T's 3G network is already deployed in some 275 U.S. markets, and the company is expected to reach 350 markets by the end of the year. It's 2.5G EDGE service already serves roughly 13,000 cities, the company has said.
So why does AT&T need to offer free Wi-Fi if it's already boosting 3G signals? One reason is that cellular coverage isn't everywhere. In some rural areas it's tough to get a signal. Another reason is that cellular service can often be weak indoors. Wi-Fi hotspots set up indoors can solve this problem.
That's why AT&T has been beefing up its Wi-Fi business in public locations like Starbucks coffee shops, McDonald's restaurants, and Barnes & Noble bookstores. Some of AT&T's DSL customers can already get free Wi-Fi in these hotspots.
AT&T's expansion of its free Wi-Fi service is now available only for its laptop data card users. It isn't yet available for smartphones, such as the iPhone. But the company has said that it will be coming later in the year.
Earlier this month, there were reports from some iPhone users about free access to Wi-Fi in some AT&T hotspots. The company even posted something on its Web site saying that free Wi-Fi was coming for iPhone users, but it then took down the notice. A company spokesman told The New York Times, the language on the Web site was a mistake, but that free Wi-Fi for all Wi-Fi-enabled smartphone users is coming.
Anyway, it makes sense for AT&T and other phone companies to offer free Wi-Fi to all its subscribers. On the wireline side of the business, it's a great perk for broadband subscribers and might even help the company win some new customers. Cablevision, a cable provider in the Northeast, is expanding its Wi-Fi hotspots as an added bonus for its broadband customers.
On the wireless side of the business, Wi-Fi offers AT&T a great way to offload bandwidth-intensive traffic from its expensive cellular network. And it provides faster, indoor coverage for some customers.
T-Mobile, the fourth largest cellular operator in the country, has also been using Wi-Fi to augment its wireless network. The company offers dual mode Wi-Fi/cellular handsets that allow people to switch seamlessly from Wi-Fi network to T-Mobile's cellular service.