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Summary:

AT&T today launched a free Wi-Fi zone in downtown Charlotte, N.C., following the launch of a similar hotspot zone in New York City just two months ago. The carrier is looking at the Wi-Fi pilot program to help offload data hungry smartphones from its 3G network.

AT&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.

Related GigaOM Pro Content (subscription required):

How AT&T Will Deal With iPad Data Traffic

  1. The choice of locations is strange. There are two large AT&T buildings anchoring either end of the zone, but there’s not a lot of outdoor activity around there. Yes, you’ve got the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the Convention Center, but those are mostly indoor venues.

    I documented how dead this spot is for 3G with photos back in December, I thought it was ironic given that AT&T had buildings there.
    http://murphymac.com/att-takes-care-of-charlotte-again/

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  2. Deranged Shaman Monday, July 26, 2010

    Is there a specific reason why at&t haves such bad service in San Francisco?.

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  3. Ronald Stepp Tuesday, July 27, 2010

    So with no real data on wifi performance, they drop money like it’s going out of style, but with known performance issues on 3G and the breakdown of their networks because of those selfish thieving greedy iphone users, they can’t be bothered to put the pedal to the metal adding more bandwidth?

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  4. Ronald Stepp Tuesday, July 27, 2010

    Example: I live in Enterprise, Alabama and bought my iPhone in Dothan, Alabama. This was 2 1/2 years ago. I have yet to see a 3G conection anywhere around those cities. If you loom at the AT&T 3G coverage map, there is basically no 3G coverage in the southern half of the state.

    When I called them in June to ask about the lack of 3G anywhere south of Montgomery, I was told that they would be adding “a” 3G tower by the end of e month. Not tower”s” but “a” tower. It seemed awfully convenient to me but what can you do. Surprise, surprise, no 3G has appeared to this day.

    So when AT&T advertises the fastest 3G in the nation and that they cover 95% of the people in the nation, pardon me while I laugh hysterically at these blatant misdepresentations by AT&T.

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    1. Ronald Stepp Tuesday, July 27, 2010

      Sorry, loom=look, and I use a Verizon MiFi for all my connections, since they get 3G down here where I live in the part of the country which includes the 5% that AT&T has written off.

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  5. perhaps if they deploy these widely enough we could dump or 3G subscriptions altogether in favor of a basic voice only prepaid SIM and use wifi only for all data consumption and even VOIP when available to save on cellular minutes.

    but will AT&T start to allow smartphones on voice only pricing plans?

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  6. [...] U.S. carriers will continue to rely on network offload solutions such as femtocells and more public Wi-Fi zones, at least one carrier will supplement current data plans with a truly metered trial [...]

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