Today, AT&T announced that it is launching a free Wi-Fi hotspot prototype in New York City’s Times Square. The hotspot is located between 45th and 47th Street near 7th Avenue, and will be the first ever free outdoor Wi-Fi hotspot offered to consumers. The service will allow AT&T customers in the area to switch from their 3G coverage, which is notoriously congested in New York City, to the free Wi-Fi while using their laptops, smartphones, netbooks, and other connected devices for no additional charge. AT&T said that this hotspot is a pilot deployment that they launched in order to look into how to use “Wi-Fi to provide an additional mobile broadband option in areas with consistently high 3G traffic and mobile data use.”
On paper, this is a smart move on AT&T’s part, since their 3G coverage is infamous for its unreliability and data traffic congestion. It has been clear for a while now that something must be done to alleviate the burden on the network. However, the hotspot’s location and size is more than a little questionable. It is located exclusively in a tourist hub, not inhabited by many permanent New York City residents. This means that it will be primarily temporary users being switched from 3G to Wi-Fi, not the resident users who have already been overwhelming the network. In addition, the hotspot isn’t very large at only two city blocks and an area this small can hardly put much of a dent in the congestion problem AT&T has in this city. While it is true that some relief is better than none, I can’t imagine that NYC AT&T customers will notice any significant difference in their 3G service coverage because of this tiny hotspot.
By launching this free prototype Wi-Fi hotspot, AT&T is acknowledging that there are serious problems with its 3G network while failing to provide an adequate solution to these problems. AT&T is essentially applying a Band-Aid and trying to tell consumers that it will heal a gunshot wound. It is true that this move will likely cause other companies like Verizon and Sprint to offer similar free Wi-Fi hotspots for their own customers in highly populated areas, which will fundamentally shift how both consumers and cell companies think about data coverage. However, it will take a lot more than a few two-block Wi-Fi hotspots here and there to fix the problems with AT&T’s 3G network.