AT&T regularly boasts its growth in Wi-Fi usage in quarterly reports, drawing attention to the importance of Wi-Fi accessed from the neighborhood hot spot at McDonald's, Starbucks, or Barnes and Noble. Such convenient locations serve as the network entry point for many users into the carrier's extended network that includes 3G connections, which have sometimes been criticized by iPhone users as being deficient.
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Released the day before Apple's highly expected launch of a presumed tablet computer on Wednesday, AT&T's Wi-Fi update report magnifies the importance of fast Wi-Fi connections that can be used to support bandwidth-hungry video streaming and other multimedia, which are expected to be features of the coming Apple device.
AT&T said its release of the Wi-Fi data was not timed with any announcement from Apple, since the carrier releases its Wi-Fi statistics quarterly.
Some analysts have questioned whether a large display on an Apple tablet can support streaming video over the average speeds of a wireless 3G connection from any carrier, let alone AT&T's, which has a smaller footprint than Verizon Wireless' 3G coverage.
But a Wi-Fi connection in a fast-food restaurant or on a college or workplace hot spot might have a fat pipe to the outside world with robust network throughput that could support some of the more bandwidth-eating applications, analysts said.
Within Wi-Fi hot spots, speeds as high as 10 Mbps-to-100 Mbps are possible using the 802.11n standard at the higher end. By comparison, a Root Wireless study recently found that AT&T's 3G averages ranged from 246 Kbps in New York to 428 Kbps in Dallas, meaning that the Wi-Fi connection would be many times faster.
If a hot spot is supported by a robust backhaul connection to the nearest switching station, either wired or wireless, and if that connection's throughput is up to the level of the hot spot, an Apple tablet user would, presumably, be golden.
AT&T is not commenting on whether it will support the expected Apple tablet. Regarding its Wi-Fi report, AT&T said it now has 20,000 hot spots nationwide, making it the largest in the U.S. It provides a map of locations on its Web site. A spokeswoman also said that the carrier is not indicating support today for any Apple announcement, and is simply releasing its quarterly Wi-Fi results.
Verizon Wireless, with the largest customer base in the country, also actively supports Wi-Fi hot spots. Last July, Verizone announced that its residential broadband customers on certain plans could use 30,000 Boingo Wireless hot spots for free.
AT&T noted in its report that its Wi-Fi network is a "complement" to its wired broadband and 3G wireless networks. In fact, about 27 million AT&T customers on wired broadband, smartphone and 3G LaptopConnect accounts can use the Wi-Fi hot spots at no additional cost, the company said. Some of the AT&T hot spot locations are being converted to free to all users, including 11,000 McDonald's restaurants that recently dropped the $2.95 fee for two hours of wireless usage.
Smartphones, and what AT&T calls "integrated devices," accounted for 61 percent of total Wi-Fi connections in 2009, and fully 72 percent of such connections in the fourth quarter. Angie Wiskocil, AT&T's senior vice president of Wi-Fi services, said the carrier is planning to accelerate Wi-Fi growth in 2010 and beyond.
An AT&T survey recently found that 43 percent of AT&T's Wi-Fi users said they had accessed an AT&T hot spot four or more times in the previous 30 days.
"Hot spot usage is skyrocketing," said Frank Dickson, analyst for In-Stat in a statement, who predicted hot spot venues will increase along with Wi-Fi capable devices.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, send e-mail to email@example.com or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed.
This story, "AT&T sees soaring use of Wi-Fi -- just in time for an Apple tablet" was originally published by Computerworld.