AT&T Expands Wi-Fi Hot Zones to Take the Heat Off Its Network

AT&T (s t) today launched a free Wi-Fi zone in downtown Charlotte, N.C., following the launch of a similar hotspot zone in New York’s Times Square two months ago, but it has not yet announced free Wi-Fi plans in the data-hungry area of San Francisco. The carrier plans a third hotspot pilot in Chicago within the next three weeks. These free hotspots for AT&T customers help to reduce data congestion on the carrier’s 3G network in such areas, which potentially improve customer experiences on a network that has, at times, struggled to keep up with the growing demand for data.

Indeed, AT&T customers are turning towards Wi-Fi connections in droves — not only because of saturated 3G connectivity in some highly populous areas, but because Wi-Fi connections are often faster than 3G. In a statement today, AT&T reports that it handled 68.1 million Wi-Fi connections in the second quarter on its network, which has over 20,000 U.S. hotspot locations. Last year, during the same quarter, only 15 million AT&T customers jumped on to an AT&T Wi-Fi connection.

Although it’s early in the life of these wireless zones, I’m wondering how much they help reduce network congestion. AT&T isn’t saying yet, but it mentioned that it will “gather more information and customer feedback in order to continue to evaluate the benefits of Wi-Fi hotzones to provide another mobile broadband option for customers.” But on its quarterly results call last week, AT&T did specify an 89 percent performance improvement within Manhattan. I suspect most of the improved service is due to infrastructure investment rather than the Times Square hotspot, but as AT&T adds more hotspots, it will be worth watching for any effect, no matter how small.

Sadly for those in San Francisco, where the loudest complaints about AT&T’s network often are heard, there’s no news of any AT&T wireless hotspot zones. AT&T did mention on last week’s call, however, that improvements in San Francisco should be expected roughly 90 days after New York City’s better service. While those improvements could bring a wireless hotspot to Union Square or the Financial District, I think Bay Area residents are hoping for improvements on a wider scale.

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