Wi-Fi offload gives AT&T much needed breathing space
In the third-quarter, AT&T subscribers made a total of 302 million Wi-Fi connections to the carrier's hotspot network
Published: 25 October, 2011
The usage stats of AT&T's network of hotspots released yesterday lays to rest any doubts about the important role that Wi-Fi will command as the number of connected devices explode and cellular data networks struggle to handle the load. It also shows how the local area wireless technology has given AT&T, whose cellular network had become overwhelmed by the rise of data-hungry smartphones (the iPhone in particular), with some much needed breathing room as it expands it HSPA+ network and migrates to LTE.
In the third-quarter, AT&T subscribers made a total of 302 million Wi-Fi connections to the carrier's hotspot network. This equates to more than 37 connections every second and is three times the connections users made in the third-quarter 2010. This enormous jump in usage is underscored by the fact that AT&T's Wi-Fi connections in a single month now exceed the total connections made in all of 2009 and are five times the total connections made in 2008.
AT&T signalled its intent to become a major force in the Wi-Fi hotspot market when it signed a service provider deal with Starbucks back in 2008, kicking out T-Mobile, which had previously enjoyed an exclusive relationship with the coffee giant. Later than year, AT&T paid $275 million in cash to acquire Wayport, a start-up that at the time had constructed a hotspot constellation of 8,000 locations.
Fast forward three years and AT&T is now managing a nationwide Wi-Fi network of 29,000 hotspots in venues ranging from airports to sports arenas. Hotels alone account for 40% of all the carrier's locations.
AT&T is also the only major US cellco deploying Wi-Fi hotzones - wide areas of Wi-Fi coverage deployed in large outdoor or indoor locations - providing connectivity in high traffic areas. The carrier continues to add hotzones in cities like Palo Alto, San Francisco and Chicago and has also made Wi-Fi available in several parks throughout New York City.
AT&T provides access to its Wi-Fi network at no cost to customers and usage does not count towards their data plan. In the past year, AT&T reports that data carried over Wi-Fi more than doubled.
The three-year iPhone exclusive that AT&T enjoyed was a double-edged sword. Whilst it allowed the carrier to grow its base of high spending smartphone users, it placed an enormous burden of its 3G network, which was widely criticised for poor speeds and dropped connections. Of all the US carriers, AT&T had the least ambitious plans for moving towards 3.5G and 4G, but the growing popularity of smartphone forced it to shift gears, and it is almost certain that Wi-Fi is now providing AT&T with some vital breathing space as it upgrades to HSPA+ and LTE.