AT&T extended free access to its Wi-Fi Home package of U.S. hotspots to monthly, unmetered subscribers to its LaptopConnect mobile broadband service with Windows installed. These customers, who pay $60 per month with a two-year commitment for up to 5 GB of combined upstream and downstream data each month, will receive no-cost access to about 17,000 domestic hotspots, comprising mostly McDonald's stores (9,500) and Starbucks outlets (7,000). A few airports run by AT&T are also included, as well as Barnes & Noble stores.
Previously, AT&T had extended free Wi-Fi to its DSL customers with 1.5 Mbps or faster connections, all its fiber-optic U-Verse subscribers, and business remote access users. AT&T has a higher tier of Wi-Fi, Premier, which includes another 53,000 international hotspots, full US airport roaming, and some hotels excluded from the Basic package. The Wi-Fi Home service is available only to AT&T customers; Premier is $20 per month for everyone else.
The business case for AT&T is clear: moving data from its expensive 3G network, limited by both the constraints of its spectrum licenses and its cellular tower backhaul, to its much-cheaper-to-operate aggregated hotspot network provides faster and more consistent connections in many cases, especially indoors, while improving 3G service for everyone outside. This is especially true for customers who may routinely get 3G speeds while traveling, but have patchier or no 3G coverage where their office or home is located. AT&T is expanding its 3G mobile broadband network from 270 to all 350 of the top metropolitan markets in the US this year, as well as increasing upload speeds. This still leaves out quite a large area of the country, although only a percentage of the population. (AT&T operates Starbucks itself through a managed services provider, Wayport, that has a separate contract with McDonald's; Wayport resells McDonald's access to AT&T.)
This announcement doesn't address smartphones. AT&T keeps accidentally slipping the kimono on its iPhone plans, enabling free access at Starbucks, then turning it off; changing their service plan details to list free access at hotspots, then removing it. (I blogged about this back on May 8.) Word on thes street is that smartphone free Wi-Fi will be added later in 2008. Timing it with the launch of the 3G iPhone, expected for June 9 at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference would be wise, no?
The free offer requires the use of AT&T Communication Manager, which works only with Windows; AT&T, unlike Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless, have no unified connection manager for Mac OS X, although they do support that operating system.