12:43 PM

AT&T Offers Free Wi-Fi For Select Customers

Customers can log in at 10,000 hotspots, including airports, McDonald's restaurants, Barnes & Noble bookstores, coffee shops, and sporting venues.

Looks like telecom carriers are warming up to the idea of Wi-Fi as an alternate way for subscribers to connect to the mobile Internet. AT&T on Monday began offering free access to its nationwide Wi-Fi network.

AT&T said subscribers with higher-speed broadband plans can now get access to about 10,000 Wi-Fi hotspots at different locations across the United States, including airports, McDonald's restaurants, Barnes & Noble bookstores, coffee shops, and sporting venues.

"Providing customers with more high-speed access in more places also gives us a competitive edge because we're able to offer an on-the-go broadband experience that cable can't match," said Rick Welday, chief marketing officer of AT&T's consumer division, in a statement.

There's a catch, however. Residential and small business broadband subscribers have to have one of the following broadband packages to quality for the free service: AT&T Yahoo High Speed Internet Pro, AT&T Yahoo High Speed Internet Elite, FastAccess Xtreme, or FastAccess Xtreme 6.0.

The major U.S. telecom carriers have been reluctant to offer Wi-Fi support -- both through Wi-Fi hotspots and built-in Wi-Fi technology in phones -- for fear that it will cannibalize their cellular business. In 2005, Verizon Wireless pulled the plug on its free Wi-Fi Internet service offered in New York City. Instead the carrier decided to focus on building out its third-generation (3G) cellular network based on technology called EV-DO.

But options for mobile consumers and business professionals are growing. SBC Communications launched a Wi-Fi service in 2003 and later acquired AT&T, keeping the AT&T name. The merged company has since created a nationwide Wi-Fi network. The company's wireless arm AT&T Mobility, formerly Cingular, has been using the hotspots to offer a 3G/Wi-Fi combo plan to its subscribers, said AT&T's spokesman.

T-Mobile, the No. 4 cellular carrier in the United States, has put up more than 8,000 Wi-Fi hot spots across the country that its subscribers can use. Unlike AT&T, T-Mobile doesn't have a wireline business and has been promoting its Wi-Fi network as an advantage over the other cellular carriers.

T-Mobile last month began offering a home-based Wi-Fi calling service that seamlessly switches subscribers back and forth between cell phone calls and calls made over Wi-Fi.

AT&T's announcement signifies the carrier's efforts to add greater mobility to current broadband options by offering higher speeds and more Wi-Fi hotspots in more places, said the spokesman.

Dozens of municipalities in the United States are also building out their own Wi-Fi networks, often independently from telecom carriers, offering mobile users another option to connect to the Internet on the go.

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