Amidst all the competitive talk of 2G versus 3G versus 4G among carriers, the free WiFi connectivity offered with AT&T Wireless service contracts has been a detail seemingly dismissed with the fine print. However, with the rising use of smartphones and other connected devices - such as the Apple iPad - AT&T announced a recent big in customer behavior.
In the first quarter of 2010, 53.1 million connections were made to AT&T hotspots in the United States, the carrier said in an April 22 statement. The figure is five times higher than the 10.7 million connections made a year ago - and nearly half the 85.5 million connections made during the whole of 2009.
"We know that WiFi is an essential part of our customers' broadband experience, bridging our wireless and wired broadband networks, and we're making sure people can connect to WiFi everywhere they live, work and play," said Angie Wiskocil, an AT&T senior vice president, in a statement. "Whether you're at your local coffee shop and need to download a large presentation, or you're traveling and need to access email at your hotel, AT&T has you covered with our WiFi network."
At the end of the first quarter, nearly 32 million AT&T customers had access to AT&T WiFi hotspots through a smartphone, high-speed Internet or 3G LaptopConnect plan. AT&T reports that 69 percent of the WiFi connections made during the quarter were from smartphones and integrated devices. This was up from 35 percent a year ago.
AT&T advertises its hotspots - which can be found in cafes as well as hospitality, retail, health care, university and sports venues - as being 20,000 strong, though the figure has been estimated, by analysts, to be closer to 24,000.
In December, Verizon Wireless jumped on the WiFi bandwagon, announcing it was rolling out service in Canada, the United States and Mexico to customers with Mobile Broadband and GlobalAccess plans. Connections via smartphones, however, were not permitted. At the time, a Verizon spokesperson estimated the rollout number of hotspots to be approximately 10,000.
A day after the Verizon announcement, McDonald's announced it would be offering its WiFi service - which until then had been $2.95 for two hours of access - for free. AT&T, since purchasing Wayport, is the provider, and McDonald's boasts WiFi service in more than 11,000 locations in the United States.
AT&T says it continues to boost its WiFi hotspot numbers, and coverage has most recently been added to the Tulsa International Airport, as well as 500 hospital rooms and patient areas at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
On April 22, AT&T additionally announced quarterly earnings for the start of 2010. The news included the activation of 2.7 million WiFi-capable Apple iPhones and the addition of 1.9 million wireless subscribers during the quarter, along with revenues of $30.6 billion.
AT&T CFO Rick Lindner noted during a call with investors that during the quarter AT&T had deployed WiFi within additional in-building locations and boosted data and call performance, including in New York City, where a concentration of subscribers has posed a considerable challenge for the carrier.