After debuting its metropolitan WiFi hotspot program on Broadway this spring, AT&T is taking it on the road. The carrier said Monday it's launching free WiFi access for smartphone customers in downtown Charlotte, N.C. AT&T also plans to add WiFi access in Chicago in the coming weeks, without disclosing what part of the city will be covered.
The overall aim of the program is to alleviate coverage issues with AT&T's 3G network by offering WiFi in areas with consistently high mobile data traffic. AT&T launched its first pilot WiFi hotzone in New York City's Times Square in May, and said customer usage has been higher than expected.
The operator has made a broader effort to boost service in New York as well as San Francisco following long-standing complaints about spotty coverage in those cities by iPhone users.
During its second-quarter conference call last week, AT&T CFO Rick Lindner said 3G download speeds in New York were up 31% over the past six months and the dropped call rate was reduced by 13% across the metro area and 23% in Manhattan.
How much of that improvement in network performance resulted from the Times Square hotspot as opposed to 3G network upgrades undertaken by AT&T is hard to say. The operator said the expanded pilot would allow it to gather more information and customer feedback "in order to continue to evaluate the benefits of WiFi hotzones to provide another mobile broadband option for customers."
But any improvement in overall mobile service resulting from the program is welcome. The metro WiFi rollout is a no-brainer for AT&T to the extent it enhances coverage for people in high-traffic urban areas, reduces strain on its 3G network and brings the company some much-needed public relations gains in relation to its service. The same goes for its powering of free WiFi at Starbucks locations starting earlier this month.
But what about San Francisco? No word in AT&T's announcement on whether the city is in line for getting its own metro WiFi zone. Linder noted last week that network upgrades in the city are about 90 days behind those in New York. That means Steve Jobs will just have to wait a little longer for better service.